When my now-husband and I began dating, we sat down and had “the talk.” You know the one—you go over your “status,” about whether or not either of you has any STIs. We were already sleeping together (we met after going home from a bar together), though we’d been using condoms. It had been a very short period of time, and we both said, “Yup, we’re clean,” and never thought about the issue again. (Knowing what I know now, I’d never use the word “clean” to describe someone without an STI; that kind of language is shaming to folks that do have one.)
Fast-forward to a year and a half into our relationship: I started noticing weird, tingly, achy feelings in my butt, thighs, and labia. I couldn’t really describe the feeling well, beyond saying that my butt felt achy like when I had the flu, and so I didn’t do anything about it. What could I do? Go to the doctor and say, “My butt feels like I have the flu?”
Eventually, I noticed that I often got an itchy kind of ingrown hair in the exact same spot. Suspecting that these things might be related, I started Googling about herpes symptoms—beyond just blisters. Lo and behold, what were described as “prodromal symptoms” sounded a lot like the weird feelings I’d been having. I went to Planned Parenthood where I got a blood test done, which confirmed what I already suspected—I had HSV-II, more commonly known as genital herpes.
The next step was what I was dreading more than anything: having to tell my long-term partner, who had been sleeping with me under the guise that I was STI-free, that I actually wasn’t. As a feminist, I believe in informed consent. Knowing someone’s STI status falls under informed consent—everyone deserves to make a fully informed decision about whether or not to have sex with someone, and that includes knowing they risk contracting an STI.
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that I had herpes, but that didn’t change the fact that I felt an immense amount of guilt and shame for potentially having put the person I love at risk for contracting herpes without his knowledge. I braced myself for the worst, drove home, and sat him down to have a chat. After I told him, he looked at me and, without missing a beat, pulled me in for a hug. “I love you,” he said. “This changes nothing for me.”
It may not have changed anything about how he felt about me, but it definitely changed aspects of our sex life. Now, any weird sensations on my vulva at all meant that sex was off limits. If we felt like getting it on, I had to be a buzzkill and say, “Sorry, I have an outbreak.” And my pregnancy added further complications when I had chronic outbreaks throughout.
But what I’ve learned through all of this is that having an STI has actually improved our communication. We talk about how I’m feeling more often, and as a result, how he’s feeling. I listen to my body in ways I would have ignored in the past. Instead of pushing through and having sex when I don’t really feel up to it, now I can say, “No, not tonight,” even if it’s not because of an outbreak.
And I’ve learned what it means to have someone love me unconditionally, and accept everything about who I am. My husband has taught me how to love someone for the person they are, warts (literally) and all. And because of that, I feel beautiful in ways I never have, even as I now carry with me an infection that causes shame in so many people.
I have herpes… and I also have a healthy marriage and sex life. It’s something that—when I was first diagnosed—I wasn’t sure was possible. But now I know it is possible, not only for me, but everyone else who has herpes, too.