Ten Ways Getting Herpes Has Improved My Life

Ten Ways Getting Herpes Has Improved My Life

Author: John Woods

As a sexual health educator, I am often the first person someone talks to after getting a HSV (herpes) diagnosis. They usually think their life has ended. Or at least their sex life. It’s a vulnerable moment, it’s not for me to tell anyone how to feel, and sometimes all someone wants is to grieve. On the other hand, sometimes better information is just what the doctor ordered to help start the healing process. If you’re newly diagnosed with HSV and wondering what’s next for you  - welcome! You’re not alone. I have it too. And here is a list of the top ten ways that it has improved my life:

  1. It’s Made Me Normal

The British Columbia Center for Disease Control estimates that roughly 90% of adult North Americans have HSV1 or HSV2 or both. Yes – that number includes everyone who gets cold sores but guess what?  If you’ve ever had cold sores around your mouth then you can give someone genital herpes by giving them oral sex. HSV1 can show up around the mouth or the genitals. Same with HSV2. Herpes is herpes is herpes. And almost 9 out of every 10 of us have it. So it’s reassuring to finally be in a sexual majority for a change…

  1. It’s Made Me Think About My Values And Who I Want To Be

When I was first diagnosed around 2001, I learned a lot about herpes. It’s incredibly common. It rarely causes severe health complications. Most people never realize they have it. I’d probably never know for sure who gave it to me because I could have had it for years and not known it.

This all seemed to give me leeway to not disclose to new partners that I had it.  Because they probably already had it. Because it’s no big deal anyway. Because if they got it, they probably couldn’t know for sure it was from me. Because I could pretend I didn’t have it, or if I infected someone I could pretend to be shocked – shocked – to discover I had it.

That was my first instinct - I was already good at hedging or creatively withholding information when it came to sex. And to be clear - some people face real danger if they talk about their STI status so it makes sense for them to be very careful about when and to whom they disclose. But that wasn’t me. I was withholding for selfish - rather than survival - reasons. And I realized that continuing on this path with my new diagnosis would lead me to become the sort of weaselly human that causes a lot of harm and heartache. The sort of person I couldn’t respect.  Being rigorously honest has been harder, but I sleep better at night. And learning how to be honest about my sexual health has taught me how to be more honest generally. I’m proud of this – and I wouldn’t have got here without herpes.

  1. It’s Made Me Better At Talking About Sex

I always disclose to new partners that I have herpes. And I’ve had… er… let’s say several partners since I was diagnosed. That means I’ve had the herpes conversation many, many times. It was awkward at first but it got easier. Now I look forward to it. Because after we get the disclosure out of the way, we’ve broken the ice and we’re talking about sex before we’re having sex. If I didn’t have herpes, I’d be inclined to skip this part. And it can be a fun part.

  1. It’s A Handy Filter

When I disclose to potential sexual partners that I have herpes, many of them tell me that they do too. Most of the folks who don’t have it (or don’t realize they have it) are cautious but curious. They want to know what will happen if they catch it, how it’s transmitted, and how to reduce the risk. We have a relaxed conversation about it, they make their decision, and I thank them either way for taking care of themselves and their boundaries.

Occasionally someone freaks out and is utterly unable to deal with the conversation and leaves. Maybe herpes is a deal-breaker for them and they don’t know how to express this. Maybe talking about sex feels way too weird for them. I’m always grateful when this happens because they’re showing me that I don’t want to have sex with them, and they’re showing me before we’ve had sex.

I’ll admit - sometimes I just don’t feel equipped to provide this kind of in-depth information to new partners. Some days just disclosing feels like a mammoth achievement, and the idea of following up with a lengthy Q&A is simply more emotional labour than I can handle. And sometimes I simply don’t know the answer to every fine-grain question about transmission risk that they’re asking. Fortunately there are great free sexual health services in Canada like the 1-800-SEX-SENSE hotline where people can get all of the information they need on the topic. I’ve definitely referred people there to ask their questions if I can’t answer them for whatever reason. One time a brand new partner and I put the Sex Sense operator on speaker phone and asked things together. He seemed kind of tickled that the information he was providing was potentially going to have an immediate real-world effect on how our date went down…so to speak.

  1. It’s Made Me Less Likely to Catch Or Pass Other STIs

The sores and lesions caused by a herpes outbreak can increase the risk of some other STIs passing from one person to another. And it’s important for folks with herpes to know this.

But when I talk to sexual partners about having herpes, it inevitably leads to conversations about STIs and safer sex in general. We discuss when we were last tested, whether we have other partners, and what our safer sex protocols are with those partners. We learn a lot of things about each other that allow us to make informed safer sex and risk tolerance decisions that we both feel good about. Without having herpes, I probably wouldn’t ask about this stuff. Instead, I’d make safer sex decisions with less information, in the heat of the moment. Which would put me at greater risk of catching an STI.

As well, because I always talk about testing before having sex, I have a good incentive to keep my testing up to date. Which means I’m less likely to have another STI without knowing it. And less likely to pass it on without knowing it. And because I know I have herpes, I can take steps to prevent passing it on. Most folks have herpes without knowing it, so they may not take these steps. All of which is to say that limiting your sexual partners to people who ‘don’t have herpes’ is not an effective way to avoid getting herpes. (I’ll admit I may be somewhat biased here.)

  1. It’s Made Me Less Likely to Experience an Unplanned Pregnancy

These conversations about safer sex also include conversations about contraception, and about what to do in case of an unplanned pregnancy. Which makes unplanned pregnancy less likely. Before I had herpes, I would often assume that if a new sexual partner didn’t ask me to use a condom, they must be using another form of contraception. I’d think it was a buzz kill to stop and ask, so I’d go ahead without one. Today, we sort this out beforehand. Which is good, because sometimes a partner - even a long-term partner - might want to use a condom but not feel like it’s safe or polite to ask me. And I don’t ever want to put anyone in that position.

  1. It’s Made Me Less Likely To Mess Up Around Consent

A friend of mine once told me that if I really want to make sure someone is giving me informed sexual consent, I should try to talk them out of having sex with me. What he means is that I should give them every bit of information that might reasonably dissuade them from having sex with me. So that’s basically what I do. If I have an STI I tell them. If I have a partner with an STI I tell them. If I don’t have condoms with me I tell them. If it’s been 18 months since I was tested I tell them. If I have a weird symptom and don’t know what it is I tell them. If I know I’m not down for a long term commitment when that’s what they’re looking for I tell them. If I feel a cold or some horrible intestinal gas coming on I tell them. A lot of consent violations happen because people withhold information or make assumptions. Before I got herpes, that was me. Now – as is probably abundantly clear – I overshare.

Being safe enough to overshare like this is a privilege, and it’s not the best option for everyone. But if you have this privilege, I’m cheering you on to make good use of it.

  1. It’s Made Me Less Prone To Drama

Yes, oversharing about my STI situation and my emotional situation and what level of commitment I’m down for makes me too awkward for some folks. I’ve missed out on connections with people I’m attracted to. I’ve had awkward conversations and felt difficult feelings. But since I got herpes and started oversharing, my sexual partners – past and present - are mostly all ok with me. There are very few people I’ve had sex with who I can’t be friendly with in shared spaces. I don’t have to watch my back. I never have to wonder if someone is going to take my new partner aside and warn them about me.

It’s exhausting having conflict if something comes out later or if lack of communication leads to misunderstandings and hurt. It’s exhausting wondering whether that ex is going to be at an event, and whether they’re still upset with me about what happened. Ask me how I know this.

  1. It Keeps Things Fresh

Once in a blue moon I get an outbreak. Or a partner does. The risk is highest that the virus will pass from one person to another at these times. If they’re having a genital outbreak, this might mean that we need to take a break from sex that involves my mouth or genitals touching their genitals. If they’re having an oral outbreak, this might mean that we need to take a break from sex that involves my mouth or genitals touching their mouth. If I’m having an outbreak (mine are always genital) then we might need to take a break from sex that involves their mouth or genitals touching my genitals. This could be a downer if I want to look at it that way. But I choose to take it as an opportunity to get out of a rut. It’s easy for me to default to having oral or genital sex. I like lots of other kinds of sex, and my partners usually do too. But we can wind up forgetting some of these other favourites unless herpes interrupts our usual routine. Many folks think that when you have an outbreak, your safer sex options are reduced to back rubs, phone sex, and gazing longingly at one another across the moor. In response, allow me to present this incomplete list of sexual activities that are very unlikely to transmit HSV:

  • Massage
  • Fisting
  • Handjobs
  • Watersports
  • Penetration with toys
  • Double penetration with toys
  • Pegging
  • Mutual masturbation
  • Mutual masturbation lying side by side telling each other your hottest, most secret fantasies
  • Ejaculating on your partner from a distance
  • Spankings
  • Slow, teasing nipple stimulation until orgasm
  • Bondage
  • Role play
  • Kissing someone’s neck while they masturbate
  • Blindfolding someone and teasing them very slowly with a vibrator until they’re begging to be allowed to orgasm

I’m not into every single item on this list, and you may not be either. But you can’t claim that it’s a boring list. Bottom line - even a herpes outbreak won’t prevent inventive, adventurous people from having inventive, adventurous sex.

  1. It Gives Me Way More Sexual Pleasure

As I noted above, herpes sometimes forces some welcome variety into my sex life. But that’s only one way it increases my sexual pleasure.

When I talk to new partners about having herpes, we also talk about pleasure. How we like to be touched. Our turn-ons. Our turn-offs. This can be hot just on its own. It increases the anticipation of doing the things we’re talking about. And when we do get going, we can get right to the stuff we know we both enjoy and skip the stuff we don’t.

Because we’ve made safer sex and contraception choices in advance that we both feel comfortable with, we can be more present in the moment with one another, and less in our heads about the risk of STIs or pregnancy.

And the communication we begin before having sex generally continues during sex. We let each other know when we’re enjoying something and when something isn’t working. We tell each other how turned on we feel and how sexy we find each other. As time goes on in a relationship, the skills and trust we’ve built talking about sex make it easier for us to discuss our private kinks & fantasies and decide if we want to explore them together.

The pre-sex conversations I’ve had since getting herpes are truly some of my fondest, hottest memories. And the people who’ve been down to have these kinds of conversations with me? The people who’ve actually enjoyed them and nerded out on them with me? They’ve tended to be better lovers - more open, adventurous, and experimental. And my wildly unscientific research suggests they’ve also tended to have herpes. And they haven’t let it get in the way of them having incredible sex lives. And you don’t have to let herpes get in the way of you having your incredible sex life either.

John Woods is a Certified Sexual Health Educator from Vancouver BC. He works for Options for Sexual Health, and for Real Talk. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are John’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of these organizations.