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First Person

Dating with Herpes: From Stigma to Self Love

Audio read by Wardah Thanvi.

When I first received my herpes diagnosis, I decided that not only was it the worst thing that had happened to me, but it was the worst thing to happen to anyone… ever. It was the summer of 2019 and fortunately, I had been caught up in a whirlwind romance when my initial outbreak happened. I told my partner at the time, who might have transmitted it to me (but not necessarily). To my relief, he was understanding and let me know it didn’t change anything about our relationship. I thought his kindness was a rarity, so I told myself I needed to stay with him for the Rest of My Life. That way, I would never have to deal with the prospect of loneliness.

This was genuinely where my head was at: no one would ever fuck me again if they knew I had herpes.

I phoned 111 the night the outbreak happened. They told me to go to a sexual health clinic to find out what it was the following day. After one of the more embarrassing experiences of my sheltered medical existence, the nurse took a glance and said, ‘Yep, that’s herpes!’ Where was the sympathy? The possibility of a false diagnosis? ‘I’ll swab it and find out which type it is.’

Frankly, the ‘type’ felt fairly unimportant when it was affecting my mouth, genitals, and arse. (I got it almost everywhere you can get it — do I get lad points or something for that?). As I was shuffling my pants back on, I asked the nurse if I needed to contact any previous sexual partners. She said it was very common, I could have contracted it at any point, and most people who carry it are asymptomatic so it wasn’t necessary; you can only be tested for herpes reliably if you have symptoms.

The thing about herpes is that it is ‘incurable,’ which is the kind of scary language we are used to hearing for more serious illnesses. When I was diagnosed with an incurable STI it felt like the end of the world. I would carry this virus FOREVER. Maybe I would have to dedicate my life to a charitable cause in order to find meaning in a bleak, loveless, sexless existence. I could do the nun thing, where my life is dedicated to The Greater Good. Dammit, why couldn’t I just have chlamydia like everyone else? At least I knew actual humans who had had chlamydia, but people don’t talk about herpes! Not in any helpful way. 

According to the Herpes Viruses Association, the stats are as follows: 

  1. Genital herpes: caused by a herpes simplex virus (type 1 or type 2) – nearly everyone (70%) will catch at least one type, sooner or later. 
  2. Most don’t know they have it: 1 in 3 will have symptoms and get diagnosed. The others have mild symptoms and so they are unlikely to be diagnosed – or they have no symptoms at all.

So it’s far more common than the media and the silence around it lead us to believe. 

A few days later I got the text that no one ever wants following an STI test: ‘You have tested positive for HSV1! No one will ever fuck you again. I hope you can make the most of your solitary, sexless life — maybe you can try voluntary work to fill the void inside you now that you’ll never have a relationship again?’

…Okay, so that wasn’t the text the NHS sent me, but that was pretty much how I read it. 

HSV1, hmm. Well that’s typically the oral herpes one so maybe that’s less bad than HSV2, which is more commonly the genital one… So maybe I can just tell people I have oral herpes, but it’s also on my genitals– 

Nope! They are the same virus and there is stigma even within the herpes community that one type of HSV is better or worse than another; that discussion doesn’t help anyone.

Eventually the whirlwind romance faded and I broke up with my partner. I contemplated staying in an unhappy relationship, just because I felt it would be the only opportunity I’d ever have to make a relationship work, so I had better enjoy it while I can. But that would have been unfair on him, and unfair on me. Your STI status shouldn’t keep you in an unhappy or unhealthy relationship, even if the world of dating is a scary place! Settling for the wrong person is also scary. 

Now that I was single again, The Apps began. Two days after breaking up (‘WAY TOO SOON!’ my friend lectured me), I decided that Tinder/Bumble/Hinge etc. were not designed for someone like me. It would be false advertising if I was on there as an ‘untarnished product’ when I was in fact ‘dirty.’ So, PositiveSingles it was. This app is about as depressing as it sounds. It’s a site where almost nobody has a photo of themselves because they are so shrouded in the shame of their diagnosis. I decided that if no one else was putting photos up, then I wouldn’t either! I became just another anonymous profile, yet I would only consider someone if they had a photo up, which left me with a very small selection (despite my 400 mile radius setting).

After an evening lying in bed scrolling, I decided I would have to settle for a guy fifteen years my senior whose primary interests were cars and beer (totally fine if that’s what you’re into, I had just been spoilt by the selection of attractive, well-dressed vegans on the apps of my past). The next morning I deleted Positive Singles; it had, in fact, been ‘WAY TOO SOON!’ and it was only building up the stigma in my mind. I read a multitude of articles and listened to some podcasts where people claimed, ‘Herpes is actually the best thing to happen to me,’ and I saltily thought, they are lying to make themselves feel better.

Now, it’s February 2021, and here I am: herpes is not the best thing to happen to me, the first outbreak was shit, and it sent my mental health flying for almost a year. However, since ending my relationship, I have had multiple positive encounters with people who DO NOT CARE. 

I decided I would just try Bumble and see where it got me. I matched with someone who was clearly into the same things as me —  ‘He studies sustainability so surely he’s a nice person?’ — and he seemed lovely. Upon realising things might get a bit serious, I messaged: ‘Just for the sake of transparency, I wanna let you know I have HSV1. It’s super common but super stigmatised, let me know if you have any Qs or if you’d rather just be friends or anything!’ I decided it was better to have the conversation that I was so afraid of having before I’d met him and while the stakes felt low, rather than letting the worry of disclosing my STI status impact my nerves on a first date. I had given him the option to tell me if he wasn’t comfortable with anything romantic while also prompting him to ask any questions he might have had.

I had a back-up plan with my pals that if he responded in a mean way we would just laugh at him, and I’d count my blessings that I wouldn’t be going on a date with someone judgmental. But it wasn’t necessary. He responded: ‘Hey thanks for letting me know, my ex had HSV2 so it’s absolutely not a problem for me. Let me know when you fancy that phone call!’ Phew! I had felt physically sick whilst waiting for his response, and was certain I’d never message anyone saying that ever again, but the rejection I was scared of never happened. We met up, got along well and hooked up several times. It turns out that people who are educated on sexual health and are understanding when you are vulnerable with them are also great people to have a sexual relationship with – who’d have thought?

After a while, that ended amicably and I was back on the apps. I got chatting to another guy that I had a lot in common with and after a week or so, he asked if I wanted to go on a socially-distanced walk. This is my moment. I have to tell him now, before I meet him so he doesn’t feel like I’ve led him on. A friend messaged me, ‘You don’t owe him anything. You can just meet up and see what happens, you don’t need to tell him at this stage.’ But I’d read too many horror stories where men had accused women of giving them herpes and ‘leading them on’ for a long time before disclosing their status, and I didn’t want to be faced with that situation. I had read a post from an Instagrammer with herpes who suggested that the sooner you tell a potential sexual partner, the better. I decided that mantra would work best for me and while it was all online, risking rejection felt easier.

I sent an almost identical ‘by-the-way-I-have-herpes’ message to the new guy, to which he responded: ‘Thanks for telling me. I don’t know what to say except I trust that you know how to handle it. I have quite a few friends with it and I was surprised at how ‘normal’ their lives were – showed my ignorance!’ Then another message, ‘I just had a quick Google search and it seems really common, definitely not an issue for me.’

Whaaaaat! I had thought it was just a fluke that the first person I disclosed to was nice about it. It seems that telling someone honestly about it from the start can lead to mutual trust and respect early in a relationship. He knows that I am honest, and I know that he is kind. We have been on a few dates since then and because they were all socially distanced, it’s been a good opportunity to approach dating at a slower pace than I am used to. I’m enjoying spending time with him and working out whether or not I want something romantic with him. I no longer feel like I have to be with someone just because they’re chill about herpes. These past few responses to my disclosure have shown me that I will not be alone forever. I have had great sex with a new partner since my diagnosis, and I will have it again. 

This diagnosis has been an amazing opportunity for self-growth and self-love. It has forced me to be more intentional when looking for partners, whether that is on apps or in real life. Emotional intelligence, kindness, and an open mind are now non-negotiable, and I’m excited to see what other encounters are ahead of me.

Resources that have got me through the last year and a half:

Instagram accounts:
@shanasingleton
@safe.slut
@brosandprose
@givingthetalk
@cliterallythebest
@radicallove.co.uk

Podcasts: 
Herpes: Positively Positive
I Weigh

Books: 
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brene Brown*


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