Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks
Online dating in pre-pandemic times was hard. In the middle of the coronavirus, it can feel impossible.
But there’s something else that can make dating hard for me: I have herpes.
There’s still a stigma around having herpes. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be writing this very piece you are reading right now. Before I contracted herpes, I didn’t know much about it. There is a lot of misinformation around it, which makes it scary and at times, isolating.
Every once in a while I’ll hear an ill-timed joke about herpes and cringe. Then I feel anger, followed by shame, quickly followed by guilt for feeling ashamed.
There’s a similar stigma around talking about the coronavirus. It’s a new and scary virus, and there is a lot of fear and judgment around our behavior right now.
Having a conversation about the coronavirus may seem different from disclosing that I have herpes, but it’s not really. Talking to someone you just met on an app about mask-wearing, how many people they are in physical contact with, and if they are high risk can be difficult and awkward. Talking about all of it is important for your health.
In both cases, it can be tough to know when to bring it up. You open yourself to judgment. And of course, it can be really uncomfortable.
More than 1 in 6 people between the ages of 14 and 49 in the United States have herpes, making it the most common sexually transmitted infection. A lot of people who have herpes don’t show any symptoms, which makes it difficult to test for and diagnose. I have Herpes Virus Simplex 2, which is the genital kind. (The other is Herpes Virus Simplex 1, which is the oral kind.)
There are several ways you can reduce the risk of transmission if you have herpes: taking a daily medication, avoiding sex when an outbreak is present and using a condom every time you do have sex. Like any other STI though, there’s an inherent risk of transmitting it when you are sexually active.
This means I’ve spent the past eight years having awkward and emotionally exhausting conversations about herpes with the people I’ve dated. Through trial and error (more errors than I would like to admit). I’ve learned a lot about having tough conversations that has made it easier for me to talk openly about the coronavirus.
Here’s how you can apply some of what I’ve learned to having these conversations yourself as you consider meeting someone in person. I hope it helps make these conversations less awkward and more honest.
By setting boundaries, you are taking control of what feels like an uncontrollable situation. You’re simply telling others what you are comfortable with and asking the same of them in return. Your boundaries might fluctuate day-to-day, and that’s okay.
I have a couple of boundaries around herpes that are nonnegotiable. If someone can’t accept me, herpes and all, then that is a dealbreaker. I also place a high value on sexual health, and it’s important that I am with someone who is sexually responsible and willing to have mature conversations.
Everyone is going through the pandemic, but everyone also has a different level of comfort and risk. To start, think about what you envision a date looking like right now: What do those boundaries look like for you? Is it outside in a park? Are you okay with going to a restaurant with outdoor seating? When, if at all, would you be comfortable not wearing a mask around this person? Do you prefer to video chat before committing to an in-person date? Thinking about these questions ahead of time will bring more clarity to a conversation.
Giving a person the benefit of the doubt can go a long way, especially when you are still getting to know them. It makes having an open conversation much easier.
Over the years, I’ve learned to ask how much a person knows about herpes before sharing anything. One of the first conversations I had about it didn’t go well because I shared too much information too fast and they freaked out. Now, I approach these conversations with more intention and care.
There is a lot of misinformation around the coronavirus. We are finding out new information every day, so the person you are considering going on a date with might not know everything that you do. Try hard to replace judgment with curiosity about their situation.
This might be the hardest one. How do you go about starting the conversation and when is the best time to do it? Experiment with different ways of talking about this and see what works best for you.
I prefer to tell people about herpes in person. I feel more in control and it helps to read body language and facial expressions. The tone I use is also important. I’ve learned that if I act really nervous, people will feel like it’s a huge deal. If I say it confidently and state the facts, it goes a lot smoother.
You will most likely talk about the coronavirus and your level of comfort before meeting up but you can still consider how you go about it — text, phone or video chat. You can also negotiate once you meet up in person because it could change. A park could be busier than anticipated or you might want to keep your mask on around that person after all. For me, it often comes up within the first few messages with someone because we can determine immediately if we are on the same page. If we aren’t, then we don’t waste each other’s time.
I’ve been talking about herpes for years and even though it’s gotten easier, it’s still weird. Having a vulnerable conversation is scary.
Once I blurted out, “I have herpes,” in the middle of conversation and was met with a blank stare and no response. I questioned whether I had actually said it. That didn’t go so well, but I survived. We ended up having a thoughtful conversation about it the next day.
Remember that dating during a pandemic is new to everyone — acknowledge that. Try adding some humor to lighten the mood before going into specifics. Don’t be deterred if you have one awkward conversation. That doesn’t mean all of them will be like that.
You just had a heavy conversation — there’s a lot to process. If they need time to think about what was said and how they feel about it, no matter the subject, grant them that.
I’ve handled this poorly a few times. I’ve become upset when people initially said they were okay dating someone with herpes, only to change their mind later. I have a hard time not taking that personally. The truth is, everyone is different and having space is crucial in deciding what makes sense for them in their life.
Just because you might be prepared to talk about what dating looks like to you right now with someone you’ve met, doesn’t mean they are.
Everyone has a different level of risk they feel comfortable taking on, whether it's a sexual or coronavirus related risk.
I try to put any rejection in perspective — it might not be a good match for a number of reasons, not just because of herpes or differing views on social distancing. We run that risk when we are putting ourselves out there.
I get it, the stakes are high right now. The more I talk with friends and potential dates, the more I realize how varied our experiences and levels of comfort around the coronavirus really are. Some people are adamant about only going out for essentials or seeing people while strictly social distancing, while others are more relaxed. It’s a spectrum. The only way to know how someone feels is to talk about it.
The same goes for herpes and other STIs. The only way it will be normalized is by talking about sexual health and having upfront conversations with sexual partners about STIs.
Explicit communication and honesty are not only necessary right now, but also moving forward. Dating might never go back to what it was, but is being more transparent really so bad? Could it lead to healthier relationships? Could we learn to be more honest with others and ourselves?
Then maybe dating wouldn't be so tough.
+ Season 1 of “Work in Progress” on Showtime: Forty-year-old Abby struggles with telling her new partner, Chris about her herpes diagnosis. I have never felt so seen as when I watched this episode unfold.
+ The Overblown Stigma of Genital Herpes in the Atlantic: This piece accurately explains what the stigma feels like from different points of view.
+ You probably have herpes, but that’s really okay from Washington Post science reporter Sarah Kaplan: This story breaks down just how common herpes is. Although this was written five years ago, it still rings true.
+ How to stand your ground on social distancing, without alienating family and friends from The Washington Post: This article shares tips from experts on how to handle tricky pandemic situations.