I have herpes. Do I have to tell all my partners?

Is it fair of me to ask someone to accept getting this by becoming involved with me?

Published November 22, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I enjoy and appreciate your column a great deal but have never seen you address this issue, perhaps because it is such a complicated dilemma. I have one of the more common sexually transmitted diseases out there: genital herpes. It creates quite the conundrum for those of us who want to date and especially date in the more recent online world. There are those who think we should only date others like us (yes, there are sites for that), but isn't that making us into modern-day lepers? Also, of the one in four to five people who have this, only about 90 percent actually realize it. So, why should we limit ourselves? Why should I state in my ad I have this? Do people say, I'm a reformed alcoholic, bipolar? Is it deceptive to withhold this information until I know someone better?

Intellectually I can completely accept that there is no reason why I shouldn't date anyone I would like to, but in the real world -- the world where one wants sex to be uninhibited, to not go on a date and in the back of one's head wonder constantly about this "talk" that has to happen eventually, if one is a decent, honest person -- it is not so simple. To agonize about what that person is going to think, to not throw off vibes of a bit of sexual distance because deep down I can't just go with the moment anymore. Is it fair of me to ask someone to accept getting this (assuming it turns out they do not have it without realizing it) by becoming involved with me? Long-term relationships require compromise, but is this too much of one?

Lots of questions I know, but there are many of us who struggle with this (or you wouldn't see all those Valtrex ads out there) and who would appreciate your response and the discussion that will happen afterward in your letter forum.

A Somewhat Wary Dater

Dear Wary,

By the way -- I can't resist this -- why aren't alcoholics and people with bipolar disorder obligated to tell their sexual partners? Because those aren't sexually transmitted diseases. Which raises an interesting point: What if alcoholism were an STD? Let's see, a hooker, a priest and an immunologist walk into a bar...

But seriously, folks.

First, a primer: Herpes simplex virus type 2, or HSV-2, or genital herpes, is "very common and highly contagious whether you have an open sore or not." The best protection against transmission is the use of a latex condom. The Mayo Clinic site just cited, as well as the WebMD site hosted by Terri Warren, both have ample facts. There is no shortage of other information on the Web.

But the bottom line is: You have to inform your partner about it before you have sex. There's no way around it. So the urgent question is how. How do you talk about it? The reason many people don't talk about it, I'm convinced, is because they just don't know how. It's easier not to.

I can make it very simple for you. You have to become intimate before you become intimate. Talking about it has to be a kind of foreplay.

Look at it this way. If there was no chance in hell you were going to have sex with a person, you wouldn't even think about the genital herpes, right? If you were in a job interview, you wouldn't be thinking, "I have to tell him about the herpes." When you're having a transaction with someone who stands behind a counter and insists on giving you a receipt, you're not thinking about telling him about your herpes. But if it's an issue in your mind, then you're already experiencing desire. Thus, in a sense, it's already an intimate situation.

That is a good thing.


Say you are on a date and you are having dinner in a fairly quiet and private part of a fairly adequate restaurant and you have started to notice that familiar whatever it is that tells you the evening might easily conclude with neither of you wearing any clothes.

What if you were to say, "Are you interested in having sex with me?"

OK, that sounds a little bold. But I'm serious. You've got to get to the subject. And the subject is not genital herpes. The subject is sex and desire.

Consider the difference between saying, "Before anything gets started, I just have to tell you: I have genital herpes," and saying, "Are you interested in having sex with me?" One of those is a real conversation killer. But the other opens up an interesting and provocative topic of conversation.

I mean, you didn't ask for a commitment. You just asked if he was interested. Say a guy is walking around a car lot looking at Maseratis and a salesman asks him, "Are you interested in Maseratis?"

Of course he's interested. Who isn't interested? That doesn't mean he has to buy one.

To put him at his ease, and give him an out, you can explain: "Because if you're not interested, we don't even have to talk about any of this. I mean, if you're not interested in seeing me naked -- are you interested in seeing me naked? -- I may have misread things. But the way you looked at me just now, I don't know, I just thought you might be interested in me that way."

Maybe he says, "Well, actually, no, you see, I should have mentioned this earlier, before things got this far between us: I am an agent for Bland-White Life Insurance LLC and I was hoping we might talk about the always-relevant subject of term life insurance for you and for your family. But, thank you, dear, I don't, I'd rather ... may I show you some brochures?"

Then you could tell him you have herpes simplex virus type 2 with no problem, right? His brochures aren't going to catch it. And it's not an impediment to satisfying your desire for life insurance.

But let's assume that in general the answer to your question is yes -- perhaps a startled, embarrassed and even slightly tumescent yes, but a yes nonetheless. So now what you're really talking about is not the herpes simplex virus type 2 but sexual desire. And yet you are going to get to the herpes soon enough.

Human desire is always intertwined with its own obstacles. In fact desire implies or even requires obstacles. Desire is precisely what is felt in the gulf between what might be obtained and the obstacles to attaining it. So whenever you are talking about desire you are talking about the impediments to its attainment, and vice versa.

So you bring up first the topic of desire, and then the topic of the one obstacle that might exist, after which the gratification of desire is for all practical purposes virtually assured -- well, that's a pretty good situation, I would think, for the guy. It's not like he's sitting there wondering whether you're interested or not.

So then still you do not talk directly about the herpes simplex virus type 2. Instead, you talk about your pet project.

Your what?

Your pet project, your one-woman foundation for the perpetuation of sexual gratification despite the obstacles presented by the H-E-R-P-E-S simplex virus type 2.

The what?

So you spell it out for him -- literally:

The H-E-R-P-E-S containment project. You hadn't heard about that? Well, it's pretty small. In fact it's just a one-woman operation right now. It just involves using a condom and praying for the best. No, I didn't really say that, did I? Oh, my. That cat's out of the bag now.

Anyway, in my little foundation, we sometimes have to spell everything out. I'll spell it out for you:

I H-A-V-E T-H-E H-E-R-P-E-S S-I-M-P-L-E-X V-I-R-U-S T-Y-P-E-2.

Really? he says.

And you say what was that? You have to spell it out for me.

And he says R-E-A-L-L-Y?

And you say Y-E-S. But: A-T T-H-E M-O-M-E-N-T, I-T I-S N-O-T A-C-T-I-V-E.

Got that?

H-O-W-E-V-E-R, I-T I-S A-L-W-A-Y-S C-O-N-T-A-G-I-O-U-S S-O L-E-T-'-S B-E S-A-F-E, S-H-A-L-L W-E?

By this time, he has either left the table or has become quite interested. So do you really have to spell it out for him? Maybe you do:

D-O Y-O-U W-A-N-T T-O F-U-C-K M-E?

Can he spell Y-E-S?

After that, you're on your own. Maybe he has the virus, too, and is able to speak in complete sentences one letter at a time. Maybe he doesn't have the virus but can still speak in complete sentences one letter at a time. Or maybe by this time, he can't really speak at all, and has to use sign language.

At that point just go home with him and a box of condoms. As long as he can get a condom on, I figure you're going to be OK. You've made your point. You've informed him of his rights. You've alerted him to the danger. You've made your recommendations. I'd say that's about all you're required to do.

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