It was one of those absurdly hot afternoons in August, and somehow I was shivering. I was sitting on a porch with a woman I desperately wanted to sleep with, and she was smoking a cigarette in a way that let me to believe she wanted to sleep with me too. We had fooled around. We grinned goofily whenever we were around each other. All signs pointed to gonna-have-sex. But there was something stopping me, something unpleasant and scary keeping me from hopping into bed with glee.
“I have to tell you something,” I said. “I recently found out that I have herpes.”
I blabbered on for a bit in a mild panic. I told her about how I’d gotten it, and how angry I was about it, and I how hated that from now on my whole sex life would be prefaced by this exact conversation. This woman–let’s call her Mia–let her cigarette burn down as she eyed me intensely. Was she going to kick me off her porch? Was she going to splutter something about running an errand and dash off out of my life?
It felt like a decade before she spoke. “Thank you for telling me,” she said. “I’m really sorry that happened to you. I don’t think it changes anything.”
I felt like I could cry. (Luckily I controlled myself; if my STD didn’t scare her off, me sobbing on her front porch in the middle of the day probably would have). Because the thing nobody tells you about having herpes, or any STD really, is that the actual physical symptoms aren’t the worst of it. The hard part is the stigma. The hard part is wondering if people are going to think you’re dirty or slutty or contaminated. I felt like every time I told someone, they’d be assessing if sleeping with me was worth the risk; if I was worth the risk. Mia decided I was, and I loved her for that. It wasn’t until later that I discovered a whole other way to think about my condition, and I’ve even come to see some positives to this mostly un-fun situation.
As of now, I’ve had herpes for about six months, and I’ve disclosed my status to four women. Three of them reacted really well: they asked good questions, continued to view me as a whole person and not a walking disease, and made informed decisions about their sexual choices.
The fourth woman–let’s call her Allison–pretended she wasn’t freaked out, but she was. We had something a generous person could call sex; she never texted me again. The way I see it, I have two options. I could be upset and hurt that Allison couldn’t see past my condition, or I could choose to be glad that I didn’t waste my time on someone who could be so freaked by something so trivial.
Because it is trivial, really. I spent months destroyed by isolation and shame before I finally came around to see herpes for what it is: a minor skin condition with a serious stigma attached. I take a daily pill and take some dietary precautions to keep myself from having an outbreak; I practice safe sex; I’ve only really had one outbreak, but if I felt one coming on I’d refrain from having any sex until it was over.
Ultimately, I lead a very normal and satisfying sex life, and it feels even more empowering because I’m doing it safely. I’m having hard but important conversations with the people I sleep with. I’m more in tune with what my body is doing. And I’ve developed the self-esteem to know that my worth, my sexiness and my STD status are totally different things.