Q. I have genital herpes, do I have to tell potential partners when I’m not having an outbreak?
A. From an informed consent perspective, the short answer is yes, this is an ideal. I say that with full acknowledgment and compassion for the challenges often met by folks who are herpes positive, due to herpes stigma (especially genital). Also, if it is not safe for you to disclose, trust your instincts of course. The long answer is more complex because non-disclosure can have implications socially and even legally. Which I’ll be up front, I reject motives to disclose that are rooted in fear. It not only sucks, but sets people up for a harder time navigating rejection.
The bitty bits I wish to impart here are tools to disclose, so I will list the technicalities of herpes/transmission, as well as some considerations about stigma below.
Key notes: herpes is a really tricky virus. So tricky, that “knowns” about the virus are limited; such as universal truths about transmission risks. In my time as a sex educator in clinics, it was a common question “how likely am I to transmit/have transmitted to me?”. And the answer is always shrug emoji. What we know is if you’re having an outbreak you are more likely to transmit, but it’s not definite. And when you’re not, it’s far less likely, but it’s still a possibility.
We also know, that while the virus doesn’t pose any long term health effects, a herpes outbreak can be pretty uncomfortable.
I like to believe most people want to take care of the emotional/physical well-being of the people in their lives. So why wouldn’t someone who is herpes positive want to let a potential partner know this might be a risk of some sexual activities they share? Well, because there is A LOT of herpes stigma! Arguably more stigma than any other STI in some ways (of course this is intersectional, different people face different types of stigma). With that stigma, comes rejection.
If the reason you’re hesitant to disclose is because of potential rejection - I feel you, that’s tough. But rejection is part of life, it can hurt if we take it personally, but we always bounce back. I invite you to explore if there is something unique for you with the fear of rejection you are facing by disclosing a positive STI status. Is it connected to your self-worth? Is the fear your own internalized herpes stigma? Ultimately, regardless of your fears, any potential partner with whom you are doing activities at risk for transmission, ideally will be given the ability to make an informed decision about their body and their health.
Unpack any internalized herpes stigma you have. Arrive at acceptance and non-judgment of yourself because STI stigma is about sex negativity, far more than it is about the unpleasantness of side effects. You are no less deserving of love or relationships.
Equip yourself with the knowledge to educate someone at the time of disclosure. Ex. “I’m positive for herpes, but when I’m not having an outbreak XYZ activities are low risk. If I feel an outbreak coming on, I will inform you and we can abstain from ABC”.
Be willing to give, even suggest, the person take some time to read up on it - you can even point them towards sex-positive, good information.
Bring it up at a time that doesn’t feel vulnerable for either of you.
If it is not a scenario where there’s time to build trust - ie. a one night stand - perhaps try dating in the herpes + community, or other sex positive communities where folks will likely be more open minded.
If you are on apps, include your status in your profile. This may be a bolder move, but it could save you a little heartache.
Be prepared for someone to not understand, or not be into the risk. It’s ok for your feelings to be hurt. Have a plan for how you will take care of yourself and move forward. I believe if you are disclosing from a place of self-love and mutual respect, no matter someone’s response, it can be a strengthening experience.
I am hopeful for a sex positive, sex educated future where fear of rejection because of STI status is a thing of the past. But to get there, we must all do our part to break down sex negativity and stigma, have the tough conversations and practice consent at our every chance. It takes courage, but we are all worth it!
Have a question for bitty bits?! Holler at me here!
Some technicalities - What we do know:
- the herpes virus has two forms, HSV1 - commonly associated with oral herpes/cold sores, and HSV2 - commonly associated with genital herpes. I say commonly because someone can have HSV1 on their genitals, and HSV2 on their mouth.
- herpes is defined as a “manageable” STI because it is not yet curable, and outbreaks - the times when sores are present - can be managed with medication and lifestyle choices.
- the frequency and severity of outbreaks is an unknown, it can be different for different people
- the virus can be transmitted without symptoms.
- the virus is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact on mouths - kissing, oral sex (sometimes through shared oral things like toothbrushes, utensils, cigarettes/joints); and skin-to-skin contact on genitals/anuses.
- herpes can be transmitted genital-to-genital, even when using safer sex tools like condoms, depending on the type of sexual contact.
- you can only test accurately for herpes during an outbreak
- you can’t really tell where you got it, if you’ve been sexually active with more than one person. Herpes can take time to appear (3-21 days from exposure) but it’s possible to miss your first outbreak if it’s mild.
- herpes is extremely common, 1 in 3 people in Canada have some strain, and lifestyle is not a factor - ie. anyone can get herpes
Herpes stigma is a leading cause for folks to not get STI tested. Other STIs that have dangerous health implications if untreated (chlamydia for example) have less social consequence and negative moral association. That’s not to say that sores occasionally on your junk isn’t a tough time, but so much so, people face ostracizing and even lawsuits against them for even potentially transmitting?
Consider the countless other health issues with similar or more challenging/harmful side effects - take flu for example. When we think someone has given us the flu, there isn’t a moral inquiry into what it means about them as a person that they had it. We don’t judge them for going out in public when they’ve mistaken they were no longer contagious. Someone with the flu isn’t shameful, or less deserving of love or partnership. Yet those are common narratives with folks who are herpes positive.
I say all this to say - there’s nothing wrong with wanting our health to be the best it can be, and to take precautions/make decisions to ensure that. Our no is no, no matter what, but we can all benefit from checking in about ideas that inform how we navigate risk, and how well we are seeing others as whole.