I have herpes. I got it when a lover gave me oral sex while they had an abrasion on their lip. We had talked about it beforehand; they said it didn’t feel like a cold sore, but it could be. Well, it was. I have no regrets. I still love that person dearly, and the time we spent together that day was magic. Life changing, and not just because of the incurable disease I contracted. I had an initial outbreak, and then no symptoms for several years.
Since then, I’ve had many lovers. I am non-monogamous and love people of all genders, so my options are pretty damned open. I tell new partners that I have it, because informed consent is important. I think some of them forget I have it, because almost everyone has some type of herpes or another, and I never have symptoms. Hell, sometimes I even forget I have it, too, which is why my second outbreak caught me off guard. Suddenly I was in the uncomfortable position of telling five people that I deeply love that I may have passed it on to them, because anyone I’d been with in the two weeks before symptoms showed was at a greater risk of transmission.
I remembered the person I got it from; how when I told them about my initial outbreak, they felt so guilty and were so hard on themselves for taking that chance with me. I assured them that it was okay, that it was a chance I felt was worth taking. I remembered the first time I was with a different lover afterward, telling me they loved me and were willing to have anything I had. Later, they got tested and luckily I hadn’t infected them. Chances of transmission while asymptomatic are minuscule. It eased my mind and made me feel less humiliated and paranoid about this new part of me.
But now it was time. The thing I had worried about so much so many years ago when I first got herpes had happened. I picked up the phone and started calling the people I’d been intimate with in the previous two weeks. All five of them. With every single one, I was afraid that they would react negatively. But you know what? Every single one was totally compassionate and understanding. They calmly said they would get tested. They asked if they could help me in any way. They told me how much they love me, and I could hear it in their voices. I cried for the first time in a long while.
There is so much negative stigma around people with herpes, as if the constant unpredictability of burning, itching pain isn’t enough for us to deal with. People looking for new partners often advertise themselves as “clean”, and will not consider being with someone who is not. It’s a modern day caste system, with the “clean” people looking down on the therefore “dirty” others. The fact is, having sex is risky, no matter who you do it with. Many people don’t get tested unless they experience symptoms, and some people don’t ever have symptoms, even if they are carriers of something. Many sexually transmitted infections can be cured, and the ones that can’t can be managed. Even AIDS isn’t a death sentence anymore. People who know they have or have previously had STIs are generally more in touch with their bodies, practice safer sex, and get tested regularly. I don’t know about you, but those things are more important to me in a partner than an assurance that they’re “clean” because they haven’t noticed any weird bumps.
Would I take my herpes away if I could? The outbreaks, hell yes. They’re terrible. I naïvely hope that I never have one again. But the infection? No. It has made me a better, safer lover. It somewhat screens my partners for me, so I end up with better, safer lovers. It has broken down my prejudices against all STIs and the people who have them. What I’m left with is heaps of love, respect for myself and others, and—oh yeah—tons of great sex.