The Cultural Silence of Herpes Diagnosis
What Happens After Hooking Up With Someone And Finding Out They Have Herpes?
The first thing most of us feel is shame. At least that’s a common reaction after learning your last sexual partner may have given you herpes. It really depends on how you find out though. Did you receive a courtesy phone call, or did you merely wake up to a new tingling sensation between your legs? The shame can quickly morph into worry, anger and a blistering sense of panic.
It’s natural to feel betrayed after having sex with someone who has herpes, only to find out after the fact. But the truth is that there’s no script for these situations; it takes a great amount of courage to initiate an open conversation about your sexual history in a new or short-term relationship—and you can imagine how many times someone has kicked off a night of raucous sex (with a newly-found friend) by combing through your respective sexual histories.
The other thing that makes this type of snafu difficult to predict is that many carriers of HSV 1 or 2 don’t know they have it; an asymptomatic carrier presents no obvious physical symptoms. In fact, it’s almost certain that during your lifetime, you’ve hooked up with, shared a spoon with, or sipped from the same straw of someone who has herpes. Saliva transfer in the presence of an open sore on the mouth is the most common way to transfer the herpes simplex virus. Whether kissing or sharing a hot dog, the virus passes between partners the same way that a common cold does. Many individuals experience their first outbreak early in childhood and then live their lives unaware that they even have—or can spread—the virus.
With an estimated 75% of Americans living with HSV-1 or HSV-2, the truth is that herpes carries an incredibly low health risk and, other than managing outbreaks a couple of times a year, it’s truly nothing to be ashamed of. If herpes presented any major threat to your livelihood, the CDC would actually prioritize testing for it in standard STD screenings.
What Should I Do If Someone I Hooked Up With Tells Me They Have Herpes?
First, don’t freak out. Just because you hooked up with someone doesn’t mean you have herpes. Yes, it would've been better had they told you beforehand, but at least now you can move the conversation forward to create a basis of trust, particularly if you plan on dating this person.
But even if it was a one-night stand, there is a strong chance you’ll encounter someone else down the line in your personal life that has herpes. A good place to start is by gathering a little more information.
If you’re going to continue having sex with someone who was diagnosed with HSV-1 or HSV-2:
- Be open to talking about it with your partner, it’s no longer the elephant in the room, now you can nurture trust and learning. This will help your partner feel comfortable letting you know when they are symptomatic.
- Individuals are more likely to spread herpes within their first year of contraction (this doesn’t mean diagnosis) after that, with proper use of medication and a healthy lifestyle their chances begin to decrease significantly.
- Asymptomatic shedding is a process that the body naturally goes through to combat the virus. You can still contract herpes when no symptoms are present if your immune system is shedding. This occurs about 1 out of every 10 days and usually only lasts 12 hours for most people. The more outbreaks someone has, the more they shed the virus.
How long has your partner been diagnosed? Do they know their own body and symptoms that occur before an outbreak? This is very important when helping to prevent the transmission.
Using condoms isn’t foolproof in preventing the spread of the virus but it will decrease your chances of contracting the virus. This being said, you can still have unprotected sex.
How To Move On
To paraphrase a bumper sticker, that paraphrases Gandhi, we must remember to “be the change we wish to see in the world.”
If you’re here, that means you’re curious about learning the facts around herpes and maybe you know what it’s like to feel shame about your body (through no fault of your own). The moment we understand that an STI is not the end of the world, or even an end of your sex life, is a moment when we can begin to appreciate the complexity of other human beings.
Talking about these things rather than being afraid of their societal representation will open many doors for clarity and happiness, in the bedroom and beyond. Just because you or your sexual partner has herpes doesn’t mean they are promiscuous or unsafe. Remember, you can get herpes while wearing a condom, you can pass it along without any symptoms and you can get it when you lose your virginity—so there’s no reason to pass judgment on someone just because they have a positive diagnosis.
It’s important to note that someone may have contracted herpes years before ever seeing symptoms—this includes you. It possible your partner didn’t know they had the disease and only found out after you two had sex. It’s also possible that you could be carrying it yourself and passed it along unknowingly—now your partner is experiencing their first outbreak. There’s no use in pointing fingers at this stage, that only leads to shame.
Should I Get Tested For Herpes?
You can go to a doctor to get a blood test to see if you have antibodies to herpes, but antibodies only suggest that you’ve been exposed and won’t determine if you’ll have future outbreaks. As a result, testing is generally not a great indicator of whether or not you are going to spread the virus during sex.
Most doctors will recommend testing only during an outbreak. Due to the numerous herpes-related viruses that humans carry—think chickenpox—testing often renders both false-negatives and false-positives. However, when an outbreak occurs, your doctor can swab the sore itself to deliver a more accurate result.
If you have contracted HSV-1 or HSV-2, just remember that it’s not the end of your sex life. There are suppressive meds which prevent future outbreaks in a significant percentage of people. Taking suppressive meds doesn’t mean you get to avoid having the conversation about herpes, however, but it gives you and your partner the best starting place to have a healthy conversation—and in turn, a healthy sex life. Think of it as a great way to get to know someone before jumping in the sack.
Where Do I Go From Here?
Knowledge is power. Even if this was a one night stand, knowing what to look out for within your own body is key. Managing the symptoms of an outbreak with medication is the best way to avoid passing it along during sex.
Whether you are sharing your story or listening to someone share theirs, remember to talk it out. Show this person—even if they aren’t a long-term thing—that it’s not scary to talk about these sensitive topics. Ask, or share, some information about how often outbreaks occur. Gauge what experience either of you has had with the virus. Ask how it feels to share about it. Encourage each other to be upfront in the future.
This conversation will reshape many other conversations like it and help both of you down the line in your personal lives. It will also help relieve that most unnecessary feeling: shame.