Ask Em and Lo: How do I bring up my herpes?

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Dear Em & Lo,

I have genital herpes and rarely have breakouts. I just started dating someone. How and when do you recommend I address the issue? Oh, the stigma!

Trepidatious


Here's how you know if you have herpes.


Dear T,

First of all, we'd like to give you a Golden Dildo Award for bravery and honesty in the face of danger (or, at least, in the face of temporary chastity). If only everyone felt as compelled as you clearly do to offer up the full scoop on their sexual histories. Unfortunately there are too many people who don't understand that if you've got something, you gotta tell. Sex is not a right, it's a privilege, and you've got to earn that privilege via honest communication about your bod and where it's been. If more people fessed up to STDs, then we'd all know a little more about them--and probably not be so freaked out. Knowledge is power, and power is sexy...

Unfortunately, honest communication isn't always the quickest route to the most sex. (Hence, so many liars...who will eventually get theirs in heck.) But there are ways you can approach the dreaded conversation so it doesn't feel like you're dropping a bomb on helpless civilians. Don't make too huge a deal about it but don't gloss over it either. Give the person you're dating the basics--because despite the fact that this culture is soaked in sex, most people are still clueless when it comes to STDs. And don't assume just 'cause you've got it, you know how it works across the board: Do your homework so you can accurately answer any questions your partner might have casually, confidently, and convincingly. The National Herpes Hotline can be reached at 919.361.8488 (every operator we spoke to there was sweet as pie). It's run by the American Social Health Association, which has a great website. Other nice helpful people can be found at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (1.800.230.PLAN).

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After you've dropped mad science, you're ready to have the STD talk. Do it when you're sure you'd like to do them and you have a pretty good idea that they'd like to do you, too. This can be confirmed with a longing, yearning, burning French kiss that's reciprocated at the end of a date (of course, we'd like to live in a world where people talk about oral herpes before making out, but even we know we don't live in that kind of world). Tear yourselves apart (the best things in life are worth waiting for) and then have the conversation the next time you're together.

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A reader we advised once on HPV wrote back years later with the prepared speech she gives all her suitors before first-time sex. It's so awesome, we've amended it here for your situation: "I have something I need to tell you and I just ask that you please listen to all I'm about to say before responding. X years ago I discovered I had genital herpes. I've gotten treated, am taking repressive drug therapy, and I haven't had any outbreaks since Y, but herpes is caused by a virus, which means I may always have it. What that means for you is, if we have sex there is a possibility you will get the virus too, even though we would use a condom, because condoms don't offer total protection against herpes. If you did get the virus, that doesn't mean you would necessarily get symptoms, since many people who get the virus never have any symptoms. In fact, you could already have the virus and not know it: more than one in five Americans is infected with herpes, less than a third of whom know it because they never have outbreaks. If you want to do some research on it and learn more I can suggest some websites. If you never want to see me again, I understand, but I hope you can at least respect the fact that I was honest with you."

Herpes: How Contagious Is It?

Go on to explain to your partner the myriad ways in which you can reduce risk. During an outbreak, you'll keep your pants on. Obviously. You'll embrace your inner sensualist and indulge in a lot of lovey-dovey hand-holding and deep eye contact....and oral. Sex doesn't always have to mean penetration--oral sex (on your partner, not the other way around) and mutual masturbation can be very satisfying. At all other times, you'll use protection. (Because for a few days each year--and there's no way to tell which days--most herpes carriers will be contagious in the absence of an outbreak. It's called asymptomatic shedding, and occurs in the area where you usually get sores.) You may be better protected by the female condom, which offers a teeny bit more coverage. If there's a penis involved in the relationship (we can't tell from your letter), then he might choose to keep his boxer briefs on during sex so only his sheathed member is exposed, limiting skin-to-skin contact; it's not official protection, but hey, it couldn't hurt. (Well, we guess it could hurt if the fabric causes skin abrasions that would make transmission more likely, so no heavy grinding with the boxers on.)

Ask Dr. Kate: STD Risk Without Condoms?


Next, give your partner space to digest the news. Point them in the direction of the resources mentioned above so they can do their own research and come to an informed decision. Remember, don't ever pressure a partner into an answer, don't tell them how they should feel about it, and don't try to sucker them into falling in love with you before you make your confession either. However, hoping with every fiber of your being that they fall in love first is okay by us. Just don't forget to ask them about their own sexual history and recent STD tests: you might not be the only one with something to talk about.

Whatever their reaction, the main thing to do--and excuse us while we get all Dr. Phil on you--is to take care of yourself, both physically and emotionally. Repressive drug therapy (see your doc) can speed recovery and lessen the severity and frequency of outbreaks, as well as possibly reducing the number of days when you're asymptomatically shedding. Boosting your immune system may also help: Take vitamins (focusing on B complex, C, E, A, zinc, iron, calcium, and during outbreaks, vitamin E) and lysine supplements, and avoid junk food or foods with arginine (chocolate, soda pop, nuts [especially peanuts], rice, coffee, tea). No tanning in the sun, no scratching the area (even when you've got no sores), and--here's the tricky one--no stress. Get yourself a therapist or a support group. You deserve to have someone to vent to. You might even check out the site Meet People with Herpes (which wins the Golden Dildo for Most Unapologetic Website Name). Even if you don't necessarily meet the love of your life there, you can probably find consolation/empathy/advice regarding the big talk.

And please, people, if any of you happen to be on the receiving end of a conversation like this, be cool about it. Honest Abes like our friend here should be rewarded for their behavior--not with unprotected genital-to-genital contact, natch, but at least with a polite, considerate, and sympathetic response. Of course, it's your right to walk away (just don't run). But know this: You could be turning your back on your one true soulmate and walking into a future of eternal solitude.

Both our first book, The Big Bang, and our latest book, SEX: How to Do Everything, have humongo chapters on STDs, including herpes. They focus on straight-forward, practical information you can't always get from those clinic pamphlets.

Good luck! We wish you all the best,
Em & Lo


Some of the above content originally appeare d in The Big Bang.

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