Q: I’m starting to have feelings for this guy friend I’ve been fooling around with, but I’m worried he isn’t feeling the same way. He’s stopped short of having full-blown intercourse with me, which I find odd, although I don’t want to have sex yet because I have genital herpes and I’m not ready to tell him. (I take an antiviral drug for this daily, and I’d have him wear protection during intercourse.) Do you think he knows I have herpes? Maybe he just isn’t interested in me romantically and doesn’t want me getting too attached.
A: When you start to care about somebody, it’s nice to give him little romantic gifts — flowers, a gourmet cupcake, a sweet card, weeping genital sores.
Surely you’d tell the guy pronto if you had a cold: “Hey, don’t get too close, because you could catch this and have an unpleasant few days.” But colds go away. Herpes is forever. Yeah, I know, so are diamonds. But, unlike a mammoth rock on a girl’s finger, a big genital pustule isn’t anything you want to be showing off to the crew at the office: “Look at it gleam under the fluorescents!”
Genital herpes hasn’t always been such a big stigmatized deal — to the point where it’s led to the tanking of countless potential relationships. Until the late ‘70s, it was seen as “cold sores down there” and often not even worthy of a visit to the doctor. Except in rare cases, the physical symptoms are relatively minor. At the first outbreak, especially, it feels a bit like the flu, with fever, headache, and muscle aches. There’s also tingling and itching, and there can be pain, burning during urination (and don’t forget the yucky sores!).
So, what led to all the stigma? The sexual revolution, for starters. In the mid-‘70s, with lots of people having lots of sex, genital herpes spread (as probably did the common cold). In 1979, the CDC, seeing the herpes stats rising, got a little hysterical and announced an “epidemic” (of cold sores!), and the media ran with it. In 1980, Time magazine declared herpes “The New Sexual Leprosy,” and in 1982, The Miami Herald called it a “cruel disease.” “Cruel disease”? Multiple sclerosis is a cruel disease. But, an infection that gives you the itchies and makes you walk funny for a few days? As herpes simplex expert Dr. Adrian Mindel told The Independent in 1987, “For the majority of people herpes is … nothing more than an occasional nuisance.”
The thing is, if you’re having an outbreak of your “occasional nuisance” and your naked parts are rubbing against somebody else’s naked parts, you could infect him. The risk of transmission may be reduced by daily antiviral treatment and condom use — provided there are no contagious areas outside the condom zone. But, you can be in a contagious stage and not know it. Of the approximately 1 in 6 U.S. adults ages 14 to 48 who have genital herpes, 80 percent don’t show visible symptoms, says herpes researcher Dr. Anna Wald. Research by Wald and her colleagues found that even when herpes carriers showed no symptoms, they were contagious 10 percent of the time. Of course, that’s on average. Wald explained to me that there’s a range: “Some people may be contagious 1 percent of the time, and others 30 percent, but we don’t have a good way to predict who is who.”
Putting this guy at risk for herpes without giving him any choice in the matter was not only unfair but pretty dumb. For many people, the betrayal is the biggest problem. If you tell somebody before he fools around with you and maybe pull a fact sheet off the Internet to allay his fears, he’ll be less likely to ditch you, and he won’t have the rage he would at being unwittingly exposed. To launch the conversation, maybe say something like “Ever gotten a cold sore? I get them sometimes…but not on my lip!” And then, as DatingWithHerpes.org advises, don’t say “I have herpes,” which makes you sound like you’re having an outbreak right then. Instead, say “I carry the virus for herpes” and explain how often you have outbreaks…which should make it sound more like a manageable annoyance than the guy’s ticket to a lifetime of Crusty Pustules Anonymous meetings.