Bullish Life: On STIs And Being Responsible Under Embarrassing (and Incurable) Circumstances

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I’ve been reading your column for the last couple of years and it has quite literally changed my life. I’m a Master’s student going into my last year for library and information science. I work two part-time library jobs and I have two internships where I do library things over instant messenger. I volunteer at a third library and I do the finances for both my faculty’s student council and the university sexual education centre. I’m networking my ass off, submitting articles to industry publications and getting involved in professional organizations. I do all of this with the intention of being kind to my future self and making sure that my future self has a snowball’s chance in hell of gaining a strong foothold in a slightly precarious field.
I had to say all that because I need you to know the awesome stuff about me before I tell you my real concern: I was recently diagnosed with the herpes simplex virus (Type 1: the cold sore kind) in the genital area.

I contracted it after being as careful as one can be (verbally asking if they were clean, visually observing that they had no symptoms, and using protection) while having impulsive rebound sex. HSV is contagious even when condoms are used and now that I actually have it, all I can really do is chalk it up to bad luck and move on.

I know what I have to do (disclose to all recent past/future partners, get tested regularly, avoid sex during outbreaks) but I’m still feeling kind of paralyzed. I’m a member of the sex positive community and I know the virus is not that big a deal, but out of all the STIs, genital herpes has major stigma attached to it. It’s daunting to think about the kinds of reactions I’m going to get for the rest of my life (especially since I don’t really plan on joining a convent any time soon).

Your words of wisdom have done amazing things for my professional life and I really want to hear your take on this, seeing as my future self is not going to be thrilled that I gave her herpes. I don’t really need to be comforted, but I could really use a strategy.

(To those concerned, the question writer actually suggested a headline, so I decided to keep it. So the word “embarrassing” came from “Contagious in Canada,” and reflects her feelings right now.)

Dear Canadian lady-comrade! I’m so sorry this happened to you! That really sucks.

First of all, I don’t think you “gave your future self herpes.” I think someone else gave your future self herpes, and that it’s probably not even that guy’s fault, either, unless he knew he had herpes and was lying, but we don’t have any reason to think that, right? He probably didn’t know he had it, and the person he got it from may not have known, and so on. There probably isn’t anyone to blame. You might as well have lupus, or endometriosis, or eczema.

(Want to read more about doing well for your future self? Try Bullish Life: Breaking Free From Terrible Situations and Bullish: Extreme Advance Planning for Very Smart Women.)

Diseases are amoral. You mentioned that you got herpes from rebound sex. Please keep in mind that this guy could have been your fiancé, with whom you fell in love at first sight, and then — due to your mutually conservative backgrounds — you waited two years to have sex, and talked about it a lot, and did the whole thing in the missionary position with the lights off while whispering The Lord’s Prayer. You’d still have the same damn herpes.

Even as a member of the sex-positive community, you may have internalized some of this “sluts deserve punishment” rhetoric that I hear all the time from anti-abortion types, religious “authorities,” and, sadly, the current crop of teenagers. It’s kind of like how pretty much everyone is racist because we live in a racist culture, and it’s our job to constantly audit that and improve ourselves. You’ve probably internalized some misogynistic “purity” bullshit, despite your outwards beliefs to the contrary, because, probably, we all have.

So, if there’s some part of you beating yourself up here, please stop. I certainly don’t believe that some god sent AIDS to punish gay people, much for the same reason I don’t believe that a god sent childhood leukemia to punish children. Herpes spreads because the herpes virus, like all life forms, wants to reproduce. That’s the same reason dandelions spread, rabbits breed like rabbits, and toxoplasmosis takes over the brains of rats in order to get the rat eaten by a cat whereby the toxoplasmosis can get back into a feline digestive system, which is the only place toxoplasmosis can reproduce (that’s a fun argument for intelligent design, right?).

I’m honestly not sure what else you could have done besides be celibate. And if you were celibate at this age, you’d probably be a really different kind of person.

So, that being said…

Having herpes (and being an ethical person who is committed to disclosing that) kind of takes casual sex off the table for you, in the sense that it really isn’t so casual anymore when you have to have “the talk” with every new partner. Sure, you could still have uncommitted sex, fuckbuddies, play partners, polyamory, etc., but not really so spontaneously.

That’s going to make some decisions for you. There might be times that you’re making out with someone and it could be fun just to “let it happen,” but now you can’t just let it happen, and you’re not sure this person would be more than a one-night stand, so is it really worth having “the talk” and then waiting for a response and then trying to get back into getting all hot and heavy? Sounds like a lot of emotional work, and a lot of people have one-night stands because, among other reasons, they want to shut their brains off for awhile.

Perhaps you know about decision fatigue: the more times you make a decision over the course of the day, the more you use up your finite store of decision-making power. People who make tough decisions at work all day can lose their willpower to make a good decision about what to eat for dinner.

The idea of decision fatigue can be used to engineer your life a little better — if you want to lose weight, arrange your life so that you don’t have to make decisions to eat healthfully and work out. Instead, you just put on your gym clothes first thing in the morning and get in the habit of going to the gym without thinking too much about it. And since you’ve already cooked a week’s worth of healthy meals, the path of least resistance is to heat up whatever’s in the fridge. You can make your life better by pre-making certain decisions.

So, maybe some of your social and sexual decisions are already made. This gives you more decision-making power to shift towards your career and other goals, towards making the world better, and towards making a better life for your future self. And towards finding a serious life partner, if that’s something you’re thinking about at this stage.

If you are looking at finding a life partner, I’d encourage you not to settle for someone who feels that he’s settling for you, and that your having herpes is a huge thing he has to get past. (You mentioned condom use in your letter, so I’m going to use male pronouns here, but I think everything I have to say here applies equally to same-sex relationships.) I think relationships should be pretty easy at first, which gives you some room to maneuver when things get hard later, as they usually do.

You should only commit to someone who thinks you are pretty much the best person alive, and that it’s truly amazing that you could even be walking upon the earth. Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend the rest of your life on a pedestal — everyone gets a little disillusioned with their partner later on, and that’s okay. At first someone thinks you are an angel upon the earth, and then it turns out that you don’t want to go out enough or you want to go out too much, and your laugh is annoying, and you want to watch the wrong kinds of movies. You don’t want that piled onto some kind of early, fundamental compromise a guy feels he made for you. You want that commingling with the initial total delight of finding that you exist.

I know some people disagree. Some people like to be friends first, and they slowly come to develop relationships with people they’ve known socially for a long time. Which could work. It’s not my approach. Of course, I’ve been called “intense.” But my approach really, honestly, saves a lot of time and keeps you out of relationships that will never go anywhere.

Oh, and I have a practical suggestion.

If online dating appeals to you, I would put up a profile, and just slip something like “HSV1+” into your list of attributes. When asked to describe yourself, you write something like, “Outdoorsy, fun, equally at home camping or exploiting Restaurant Week for all it has to offer. I’m all about full-on recreation on the weekends, serious ambition during the week. Sex-positive, HSV1+, socially liberal, love languages and travel.”

Obviously, that’s not enough disclosure before having sex with someone — of course you still have to mention it in person and answer questions and whatnot. But having put that in your profile will tell you, 1) whether the dude bothered to read your entire profile or just liked your pictures and decided to practice de facto illiteracy, and 2) whether this is the sort of guy who googles things he doesn’t understand rather than just glossing over them.

(See also: Bullish: How I Met My Soon-To-Be Husband on OKCupid and Bullish Life: What I Learned from 20 Years of Dating.)

To be fair — on online dating, men often have to send many, many messages just to get one response, so it’s fine if the guy didn’t read your whole profile before contacting you the first time. But once you’ve written back — or certainly before meeting in person — that’s the time for the guy to go read the whole thing to come up with stuff to make conversation about.

Men who don’t read your profile even before meeting you in person are, in my estimation, the kind of guys who view the head part of the woman as an inconvenient barrier keeping them from the vagina part. You want no part of men who do not care about the words women are saying.

So, if you’ve disclosed casually in a profile, then when you have The Talk, either:
1) The guy will be like, “Oh yeah, I already knew that, it’s cool”
2) “Me too, I actually found you by searching HSV”
or
3) If he gets weird, you can be like, “Um, it was in my profile and you still contacted me…?” And then you’ll probably never see each other again, but you can rest assured in the knowledge that you might have an STD, but he has poor reading comprehension skills, so you kind of win that one.

Of course, you probably also know that about 1 in 6 people have herpes (that’s a stat for HSV2, which most people regard as worse than what you have anyway). This article alleges that the rate of herpes infection for women in general is 20%, and that among unmarried women ages 45-50 (kind of random, but OK) it’s more like 50-75%. All of these peoples’ lives are not ruined.

I’d memorize these stats. If you toss off “20%, and in some populations more than half” like it’s common knowledge, I imagine that some guys will infer on their own that, in the community of young urban people with a lot of opportunity, the rate is probably on the high side, and they have almost certainly been exposed already.

(See Bullish Life: How to Communicate with Chutzpah.)

And that actually leaves plenty of people who are also HSV+ for you to date. There have to be some awesome guys out there who are feeling bad about their penises and really hoping to find a woman who isn’t going to treat their dick like it’s the Excalibur of Pestilence. You guys could make a cute trip to the doctor’s office together to find out just how much safer sex you need to practice.

Finally, most people who have a health condition that isn’t progressive quickly adapt. People can adapt to most anything. We recalibrate. Soon you will find that you think about this way, way less often than you are currently thinking about it. Your career sounds pretty exciting, so you have a lot of better things to spend the brain power on.

First published on The Gloss.