To Tell or Not to Tell? Part II: "Business Casual"
While contemplating the difficult issue of when to tell a partner about herpes, I realized there’s one situation that is truly an ethical obstacle course: one-night stands.
For some people, this is a no-brainer as they find such sex meaningless, and therefore avoid it. For others, however, casual sex was a lifestyle that won’t stop because they’ve been infected with an STD.
Obviously I can’t recommend having casual sex or one-night stands. That said, I also can’t pretend that I haven’t had them. So being as realistic as possible and knowing that some people with STDs will continue to have sexual relations, possibly with people they don’t know very well (or at all), I feel this type of situation needs to addressed.
Before I begin I’d like to say that whenever I talk about a herpes carrier having sex I’m talking about outbreak-free sex. I, personally, lose all sex drive during and recovering from an outbreak, so it’s not hard for me to abstain. If you are having an outbreak and still feel the urge, please just resist (or masturbate, for Chrissake). Why? First, you should resist because, if you have sex during an outbreak, it is highly likely that you will pass on herpes to your partner, as the virus is very contagious during outbreaks. Second, sex will aggravate your outbreak, resulting in more suffering for you.
So, assuming you are healthy, whether you bring someone home from a bar or just want a quick fix with an old friend, I have found there are two approaches to dealing with this situation: telling your lovers at the first sign that you will be physically intimate, or not telling them at all and practicing very safe sex.
I prefer the latter and I’ll tell you why. I think if you refrain from sexual activity during outbreaks, always use condoms and minimize skin-to-skin genital contact, there is very little chance your partner will catch the disease. And while I’m being totally honest about it, I will just say that I do have oral sex and I’ve never used a dental dam. There, I said it. Is that so bad? Really, honestly, people won’t use those things…they just won’t. Doctors can tell us how important it is, but it just won’t happen. However, due to my diligent dedication to personal hygiene, and quasi-obsession with my disease, I have not given herpes to anyone that I know of.
Another argument for the aforementioned approach is that you don’t know if the person you’re with also has herpes and may not even know it. If you tell that person you have herpes, continue to have sex, then later that person tests positive, he/she could blame you for their contracting the virus when maybe it didn’t actually come from you. This scenario was presented to me by a Planned Parenthood doctor, who recommended that I withhold my secret from a person who I know won’t develop into a more serious partner. She, of course, also urged that I always be very careful while having sex.
On the other hand, I have a friend who insists on telling anyone she has sex with that she has Herpes, no matter what type of relationship she has, or will have, with that person. She strongly believes that if she were on the other side, she would be very angry to find out that this information was withheld from her. She has a pretty active sex life, and says that everyone she’s slept with has been understanding about her situation with the exception of one man, who didn’t want to proceed. I think this is a great approach and I admire her ability to do this. I can’t get myself to do the same as my personal creed dictates that I tell a partner about my disease when we’re not in the bedroom…or at least not in a sexual situation. If it’s a one-night stand, there’s really no other time to tell…so I don’t.
I suppose the only solution is to do what feels right for you - physically, emotionally, morally - and keeping in mind the safety of the other person. If you follow that guideline, chances are things will work out. If you’ve just found out you have herpes, and you think you’ll never have sex again, you should take a step back and think about whether you’re actually overreacting.
Penelope wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Sexual Health.