“I contracted genital herpes in my last relationship. I now feel like I am cursed to never be in a sexual relationship again. How do I tell new partners that I have herpes? If thanks to my prescription I haven't had an outbreak in a really long time, do I have to tell?”
To see Dr. Glickman's answer, read more.
There’s a lot of stigma attached to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and it’s always seemed so strange to me. After all, lots of people who don’t think twice about spreading the flu or other illnesses often freak out about STIs. For centuries, STIs were seen as divine retribution against sex. But these days, we know that they’re caused by bacteria and viruses, just like colds, measles, and such.
Herpes medications make outbreaks less likely, but since the virus is present on the surface of the skin and can be transmitted to someone else medication doesn't give you a 100 percent guarantee. So even if you never have another outbreak, it’s still possible to transmit herpes. That being said, you are definitely not "cursed to never be in a sexual relationship again." There are also lots of people who understand how herpes works and how to have safer sex. So while it’s a bit more complicated for you, it’s nowhere near as hard as it feels right now. As for whether you have to tell someone, my personal belief is that a healthy sexual relationship depends on informed consent and that can only exist when someone has full information. Assuming that you decide to tell potential partners, there are a few different elements to consider: when to tell someone, what to tell them, and how to tell it. I’ll take on each of these separately.
When to tell someone: You’ll likely be better off if you let a potential partner know about your situation before things have gotten past the point of being able to make a good decision. But, it’s also not really necessary to tell someone before you’re even sure that you want to have sex with them. Perhaps after a first kiss, so you at least know that there’s some chemistry, and it's before clothes come off. If someone is going to have a negative reaction, it’ll probably be a lot bigger if you tell them after you have sex with them and it’ll almost definitely be much bigger if they find out by having an outbreak. That’s the sort of thing that can lead to a breakup.
What to tell someone: It can be as simple as “I have herpes. I take medication and I haven’t had an outbreak since…" Or it can be more detailed, depending on how much you know and how much you want to share. You can get lots of great info at www.herpes.com or check out the books Managing Herpes or The Good News About Bad News: Herpes.
You could also tell them where you have had outbreaks since those are the places that the virus would be most likely to spread from. That can help you strategize around safer sex. One of the hassles of herpes is that condoms don’t always cover all of the places that it can show up. If you’re going to receive oral sex, you can use a dental dam. Dams come in latex and non-latex versions. If you’ve never used dental dams before, page 12 of this guide tells you all about them, along with lots of other great safer sex info.
The Female Condom covers more of the vulva, giving you some extra protection. The manufacturer is currently producing the FC2, which will be less expensive and feel somewhat better, so I expect them to be available soon. Gloves can also help reduce the risk of transmission and they’re really easy to use and can be kind of sexy.
How to tell someone: I find that the best way to do it is to be upfront about it and not let embarrassment or shame creep in. The calmer you are and the more direct you are, the easier it’ll be for a potential partner to hear. If you’re nervous about it, that’ll send a message that this is something to be anxious about. If you have a friend or two that you can tell about having herpes, it’ll give you a chance to practice saying it without the pressure of worrying if it will complicate things.
Think about how you might tell someone you’re going to have dinner with that you’re vegetarian or that you’re allergic to seafood. It’s important information that you’re sharing in order to find a solution. Try to tell a potential sexual partner about this in the same way.
Herpes is definitely not the end of your sex life. It’s simply something to take into consideration. It might take a little practice to figure out when, what, and how to tell someone, but plenty of other people have found ways to do it and you can, too.