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At age 19, I received what I considered to be some of the worst news a sexually active and free-spirited college student could get: I had contracted herpes. It's the STI that every movie and stand-up comedian told me I should be terrified of. So when a kind nurse told me my new diagnosis, all I could do was sob.
In my mind, my life as I knew it was over. My body no longer belonged to me but instead to this shameful disease. I was a stain on society because of this incurable virus — at least, that's what I had been taught to believe.
Not long after my diagnosis, my then-partner and I broke up. He'd been the only person who knew about my diagnosis. Suddenly, I was faced with the daunting prospect of disclosing my status to new partners.
Many people who've contracted herpes, or any STI, will know how uncomfortable it can be to tell a new partner. Every time I was in a situation where I might have to disclose my status, the same questions raced through my head: "How are they going to react?" "Will they still find me sexy?" "Who would want me now?"
Over the years, doctors would tell me repeatedly how many people in the world have herpes (about half a billion, according to the World Health Organisation) and, listening to my worries, would emphasise that it was possible for me to have a full sex life. But none of their reassurances sunk in; I simply pushed away any dating prospects to avoid the conversation entirely. Until I met Matt.
He was a known player in the frat community, and rightfully so. He was attractive and muscular and, rumour had it, had a crazy sex drive. I was newly single and his next target. His charm would have worked on me instantly only a year prior, but the new me was hesitant due to my recent diagnosis.
We acted like teenagers at first, making out, dry humping, doing hand stuff. But I was afraid to go any further. To Matt, I blamed the recent breakup for my hesitancy, and he was respectful of my boundaries.
After a few weeks, though, I couldn't take it anymore — I had to have him. My gynecologist had assured me that I could have safe sex with herpes and that many people do. She told me how I could reduce the chances of passing on the virus, including taking antiviral medication, using condoms, and monitoring my body for potential symptoms of an outbreak. It is not an exact science and still comes with risk, like any sexual encounter, but it was possible.
So one night, armed with condoms and zero signs of an imminent outbreak, Matt and I had sex. It was everything I'd hoped it would be — except for one small problem: I was wracked with guilt. I had chickened out and hadn't told him about my diagnosis. I felt like a coward. I knew that the ethical thing to do was to disclose that I had herpes beforehand, but the internalized shame I felt over the condition stifled my good judgement.
Eventually, my guilt got the best of me. A week later, I called him and told him to come over. When he arrived, I was visibly nervous.
"Is everything OK?" he asked. It was not.
"I have herpes," I blurted out without any warning.
When I said it, I was prepared for him to curse me out and tell all of our friends. But all he said was, "OK, thanks for telling me." I was stunned. Where was the anger and disappointment? I didn't see it anywhere on his face. Instead, he asked, "Can we still have sex?"
It felt as if he'd asked me to marry him. "Yes, 1,000 times yes! We CAN still have sex!"
I've let go of the shame and stigma I'd internalized around herpes, and that's give me back my freedom, my sex drive, and my confidence.
And that's exactly what we did. After that moment, sex with Matt was completely freeing. I could tell him exactly what I wanted, focus on pleasure, and be in the moment without having a voice in the back of my head reminding me of my diagnosis.
Even though Matt and I never had a romantic or monogamous relationship — we were more friends with benefits (and multiple orgasms) — we continued our casual sexual relationship for more than six years, on and off.
One thing I loved about the sex was that it was just as spontaneous and wild as before my diagnosis. We slept together in every position, in every location — at his place, at mine, at the gym, in our college's library, at his place of work — and sometimes with my friends. The only constant was that Matt never mentioned my herpes diagnosis again. And to my knowledge, he never contracted it, either.
My experience with Matt — the guilt I felt for not disclosing my status to him before getting intimate, his kind and measured reaction when I did tell him, and the freedom I felt to enjoy myself after we'd had "the talk" — was the first step in forgiving myself and questioning the stigma around herpes. He gave me the confidence I needed to tell other partners before we had sex and helped me realise that my diagnosis is just a part of my life. He made me feel desirable again.
It's been 12 years since my diagnosis, and I'm not ashamed like I used to be. While I don't shout it from the rooftops, I'm more comfortable telling people. Multiple friends have since confided in me their own diagnosis, and I don't feel so alone anymore.
Since that first hookup with Matt, I've had multiple significant (and insignificant) relationships. Along the way, I've met plenty more Matts, who've taken my disclosure in stride. Unfortunately, I've had some negative experiences as well.
But I've let go of the shame and stigma I'd internalized around herpes, and that's given me back my freedom, my sex drive, and my confidence. And while I had to do my own work to get there, it all started with one man simply asking me if we could still have sex.