Sex, lies and STDs

A buzzy lawsuit brings up a common phenomenon: People lying about, or concealing, their true status

Published May 15, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

TMZ's week was sure made by news that an A-list celebrity was being sued for spreading herpes. An anonymous woman filed a $20 million lawsuit against the unnamed star, claiming that he knowingly exposed her to the virus, which she was diagnosed with after their fling.

This isn't the first time an STD lawsuit has made headlines (see: Michael Vick, David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams), nor is it a phenomenon reserved for big-name celebs. For example, in 2009, a California woman won a $7 million lawsuit against the (very rich) man who concealed his status and gave her herpes. These hard-to-win cases are extremely rare -- but anecdotally, at least, the dishonesty around this subject is hardly unusual. I decided to talk to people about how they had lied, and been lied to, about incurable but common STDs like herpes and HPV. I found that once I started asking around, it wasn't difficult to find stories of deception -- during one-night stands and long-term committed relationships alike.

"Linda" got genital herpes from her first boyfriend at age 18 and says, "I have never told any of the subsequent guys that I've slept with or dated," she wrote to me in an email. "I have never acknowledged this to anybody else. I've never 'said it' out loud. I always say to myself, 'I'll tell the next one,' but that hasn't happened yet." Linda acknowledges that it's unethical -- "which is terrible for me, because I'm a social worker. I'm supposed to be all about ethics," she says -- and is wracked with guilt.

She's tried dating sites for people with STDs, but none of those relationships have worked out. Linda has an eHarmony profile but the idea of meeting any matches fills her with anxiety. "I think they'll hate me," she says. "I feel like nobody would love me if they knew." Now when she meets someone she's interested in, she avoids pursuing a relationship because, she says, "I'm too afraid to tell him I have herpes; I feel like he'll never want to see me or talk to me again." It's a never-ending cycle of denial, desperation and guilt: "I'm a terrible person, and I'm starting to think that I don't even deserve to be with anybody after what I've done," she told me.

Oh, honey. There is no denying that the most moral policy is to be completely upfront about your status -- but her silence isn't rare at all. In fact, the only unusual thing about Linda is that she was the sole person who contacted me and copped to having personally hidden an STD from her partners. It's much easier to find people willing to talk about being on the other side of things.

"Owen," a gay man in his early 20s, wrote to tell me about a drunken hookup with a man he met in a bar. Only later did his one-night stand admit that he was HIV positive; luckily, they used a condom. "He said he only concealed his HIV status from me because after being diagnosed the previous year, he felt like he would never be able to feel attractive or 'wanted' again. He used me to help convince himself that he was still desirable." Owen says he "felt a tiny bit of empathy towards him" -- which was no doubt easier after his HIV test came back negative. "It was a long three-month wait for the testing window period to pass," he said.

Far more common are stories of people concealing STDs that generally aren't life-threatening. Within minutes of putting out a call for interviews, a friend in her mid-20s instant messaged me: "YES, STD LIES, YES." After fooling around with a guy for three years in college, she confronted him about a rumor that he had herpes and he finally came clean about not being clean. "He allowed me to be naked with him a lot and I know he had one-night stands and shit and never told the chicks," she wrote. "I had two STD tests after being with him. I called that year 'HERPES WATCH 2009.'"

"Laura," a 24-year-old, shared a similar story -- only her then-boyfriend outright lied to her when she asked whether he was clean. "I was sure to ask him if he'd been tested and he assured me that he had and was totally fine," she wrote in an email. "Over the next three months we developed a pretty close relationship" -- but then they went their separate ways. Fast-forward two years: He sent her a message on Facebook explaining that he had actually been diagnosed with a strain of HPV before they started sleeping together. The note read in part:

I'm really sorry that I didn't let you know at the time. I was too immature and scared to broach the subject. But, I wanted to let you know about it so you could get tested just in case ... I am truly sorry for disrespecting you like that because I think you are a real awesome person and I mean to treat people with nothing but total respect. This was my big fuck up and I'm trying to right the wrong. I'm sorry. Hope your life is great.

So, why do people do this? Part of it is the mistaken belief that after the symptoms of an incurable STD like herpes or genital warts disappear, it's no longer transmissible. It's less likely to be passed along after treatment, yes, particularly when the lesions or bumps are absent, but the possibility is still there. That is part of why these diseases spread so effectively: It's called asymptomatic shedding of the virus.

It's also true that these STDs are so alarmingly prevalent that some people just shrug and say, "But everyone has it, right -- why bother revealing my status?" It's suggested that 50 percent of sexually active Americans will get an HPV infection at some time in their life (and it usually clears on its own, often without the presentation of any symptoms). An estimated 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 8 men, have genital herpes.

Some people who lie about their status -- say, HIV-positive people who intentionally have unprotected high-risk sex with the intent of spreading the deadly virus -- are quite simply sociopaths. But it's more commonly the case that people hide their status because they're mortified. It's why so many bogus herpes and HPV drugs are hawked online, despite copious evidence that no cure exists. Some people's desperation is so great that they are willing to believe in magic -- and of course they are. Sex is one of the most powerful ways that we seek pleasure, connection and acceptance -- and the disclosure of an STD can feel like a threat to all that. This cuts straight to the heart of our insecurities about sex: the worry that we are undesirable. The irony is that there is something very lovable about expressions, like Linda's, of such deep fears -- because it is so profoundly human.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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