Telling a partner that you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as genital herpes, may not be easy, but it’s necessary. But, when getting to know a new partner, revealing your STI status isn’t as simple as revealing your favorite place to grab dinner. In fact, in a recent Bustle survey of 226 women ages 18 to 34, one participant said, “It’s hard to admit to having had an STI, there’s so many gross assumptions about promiscuity and uncleanliness.” As another respondent put it, “Women are seen as less sexual beings in society which keeps us from being able to talk about issues without some form of shaming from others.” Sadly, the more women with herpes feel shamed, the more the cycle of stigmatizing the STI continues, and the harder it may be to tell a sexual partner you have herpes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one out of every six people 14-to-49 years old in the U.S. have genital herpes, also known as herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). HSV-1 is the herpes virus associated with oral herpes, such as cold sores and fever blisters on or around the mouth, but HSV-2 refers to genital herpes. (However, you can get either strain of the virus on other parts of your body.) You can have either type without exhibiting any symptoms, yet still pass it on to other people via genital secretions or skin to skin contact, which makes herpes a prevalent STI. Many people either don’t have a visible sore, or do not know they have herpes, and then pass it on to their partner(s). But for some, the stigma around herpes can be worse than any of the actual symptoms.
While practicing safe sex is crucial, condoms are not foolproof methods (condoms can break, the virus can be on skin around the genital area, people may not know they have it, etc.). All in all, it comes down to getting tested and being honest with your partner about your STI status. However, revealing their herpes status is understandably a challenge for some people more than others.
“When it comes to telling a partner about having herpes, there really is no easy way to do it,” Lawrence A. Siegel, clinical sexologist and certified sexuality educator at the Modern Institutes for Sex Therapy Training and Sage Institute for Family Development, tells Bustle. “Like with any other ‘reveal,’ there might be a risk that the other person may reject you and leave.” However, he says that it’s a risk that’s important to take, and that it may even help you and your partner form a closer connection and lead to better communication and intimacy. “Moral considerations, too, are important, and informing a potential partner is simply the ‘right’ thing to do, especially in this age of greater focus on consent — which is about making the choice based on knowing all the risks, and benefits, involved.”
Of course, telling your sexual partner that you have herpes will be different for everybody. In fact, Laureen HD, 31, has a YouTube channel dedicated to helping people cope with herpes and its stigma. “Disclosing your herpes status to a potential partner is always stressful, no matter how many times you may have disclosed it in the past or how many intimate relationships followed your disclosures,” she tells Bustle. “But, personally, the partners I have disclosed to in the past always empathized with the vulnerable position I put myself in, because I prioritized their consent over my pleasure. In one case in particular, that heartfelt moment and mutual respect even boosted the connection we felt toward each other.”
So what does the conversation actually look like? From what they say to how new partners react, here’s how Laureen and 22 other women tell a sexual partner they have genital herpes.
“My typical disclosure sounds something like this: ‘I have a skin condition that causes flare-ups from time-to-time. This skin condition is herpes, and it’s pretty manageable, most of all when I’m on suppressive therapy. Do you know anyone else who has it?’ From past experiences, I have noticed that what I say is as important as how I say it. I make sure that my body language — posture, tone of voice, eye contact — are all conveying how I feel about having herpes: There’s nothing shameful about it!
A herpes disclosure can affect how physically intimate a relationship will be, but rejection is not a systematic reaction. I always remind myself (and my YouTube and Instagram viewers) that despite having a status to disclose, dating shouldn’t become about being accepted or rejected: It’s still about meeting new faces, connecting with people, and having fun!”
“I’ve had the herpes virus for about 15 months now. I’ve had some partners flat-out reject me in anger, others ghost, and a couple have spilled intimate secrets in response to my vulnerability. I’ve received incredulous laughter, ignorance, hate, hugs, high-fives. The gamut. In this herpes journey of mine, I’ve tripped and fallen not-so-gracefully and taken the wrong turn. Vulnerability is incredibly difficult — especially when the very thing you are exposing is something that brings up feelings of shame and self-hatred. When I first contracted herpes, I was devastated and ashamed. I apologized and cried when I revealed I was HSV+ and my partners didn’t respond with empathy — they responded with fear and said hateful things, which then pushed me further into self-loathing and shame. With the help of herpes blogs, medical articles, and my therapist, I began to accept herpes as any other medical condition. Having herpes isn’t my distinguishing quality, but it is something I live with that affects my physical health.
I noticed telling my partners got easier as time wore on. I introduced my viral condition with humor or in a passing comment, and my partners responded with empathy. Now, I share openly with potential partners well before we have sex. Sometimes, it makes them uncomfortable and they choose not to engage in sexual intimacy, and that’s their choice. It’s hard, but you have to learn that not everyone will be open enough to hearing your story, but that shouldn’t deter you from being vulnerable and having a normal sex life. The vast majority of my partners have been accepting and empathetic — we talk about my story, what having herpes means for my sex life, and I answer any questions they may have, and then, when we are both comfortable, we have sex!”
“I have been HSV-2 positive for five years. I typically tell new partners my status over text message. It’s easier for me, and I feel that it gives them time to think and process without immediately having to face me. The text typically reads something like, ‘Before we go any further, I do want to let you know I have genital herpes. It honestly very rarely affects me physically, and it has been ‘x months or years’ since I had an outbreak. The stigma is actually much worse than the virus itself. I do my best to be as safe and knowledgeable as possible, so if you have ANY questions at all, please don’t hesitate to ask. I completely understand if this means you do not want to move forward with a sexual relationship at this time, but I do enjoy our time together and obviously trust you. Thank you for that trust and compassion.’
The responses have ranged from ‘K. That’s cool. No worries. When are you free?’ to ‘Thank you for confiding this information with me. It’s a lot to think about, and I would like to continue this conversation further soon.’ Sometimes, we move forward with a sexual relationship, sometimes not, but I’ve never gotten any immediate ghosting or, ‘Ew, you’re disgusting,’ which is what I always feared when I was first diagnosed. People appreciate honesty and the openness for dialogue, and if they don’t, you obviously shouldn’t be having sex with them anyway.”
“I’ve had HSV-2 for four years now. In the beginning, I agonized over disclosing to both new and past partners — to the point I didn’t want to date anyone because I was afraid they would be disgusted or mean to me because of herpes. The first few times, I would be close to tears or in tears when I had to tell a new partner. I no longer act like that because I no longer feel dirty or ashamed, but I have been super surprised by how people react to disclosure. I haven’t had anyone turn me down or tell me I am dirty or less-than, which, to be honest, is what I expected. I found that if I act like HSV-2 is nothing to be ashamed of, then they follow my lead.
Some people ask for time to do some research, so I provide them with good and trustworthy websites and pamphlets, because I have noticed some websites use super inflammatory language that is just not necessary for what is essentially a rash. … I start off my disclosure conversation by telling the person that I like them, and I could see it becoming a sexual relationship, but before anything goes any further, we need to talk about our sexual health. This opens it up for more of a conversation than a tell-all. I think how I approach disclosure is the reason I haven’t had any really awful experiences with it.”
“When I first found out I was herpes positive, two-and-a-half years ago, I was petrified of telling partners because I didn’t want to face rejection — I was embarrassed. But eventually when I started dating again, I gathered the courage to begin telling people — it took a lot of self-reflection and acceptance. I had the realization that a partner’s reaction to me telling them about my herpes says nothing about me and everything about them. It really made me reevaluate my sexual relationships with people and ask myself, ‘Would I really want to be with someone whose opinion of me changes just because I have herpes?’ I’ve gotten a plethora of reactions from, ‘Wow, I didn’t think you were the type to have that,’ to ‘Well… can we just do anal,’ to ‘That’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.’ Answers like these show me that I would be wasting my time with people like this because it tells a lot about their character, priorities, and lack of respect for me.
Therefore, I can spend more time with people who give me answers like, ‘Wow, I don’t know much about the topic, but I’d love to learn more,’ or ‘I’ve dated someone with herpes before, it’s just all about communication!’ or ‘Thanks for being so honest! It doesn’t bother me.’ Telling partners and being open about my herpes positive status has honestly helped me to be more confident and realize my self-worth, which can’t be taken away because of a rejection.”
“I’ve had herpes for almost two decades. Most of my closest female friends have it, too. We’ve all been ‘tricked’ into getting it, i.e., NONE of the men who gave it to us told us they had it. One of my friends who insists on partners getting a full STD test before having sex with her got it from a guy who actually got tested, and then lied about his results! It is sometimes difficult to take the high road and I know people who haven’t told their partners — I’ve done the same at times, just ’cause it’s so much easier.
Guys NEVER ask or bring it up (in my experience). I’ve tried several methods of disclosure, and all feel scary. Trying to be honest often blows up in your face. I’ve been called disparaging names (slut, whore, etc.), ghosted, and worse — all because of this virus that I acquired through no fault of my own. At times, it has been devastating and kept me from being in relationships or even dating because ‘the talk’ has been so difficult and caused me so much anxiety. The worst part is that the stigma is far worse than the actual disease: The effects of having it are nothing compared to how some people judge you for having it.
Also, helpful advice — never tell someone to ‘Google it’ if they want to know what herpes is like; that won’t end well. I wish I knew the ‘right’ way to broach the topic, but after all these years, I think it has more to do with WHO you are telling than WHAT you are saying. To that end, I think the best way to do it is to just say you have it with no judgment, like it’s no big deal (because it’s not!), and hope for the best.”
“I’m poly, so I find it extremely important to share my herpes status with my partners. To be honest, when I first found out I had herpes eight years ago, I became celibate for a couple years — I was too ashamed. But then I came to my senses and just took an ‘F it’ attitude — if someone wanted to be with me, they’d be with me, case closed. And that’s exactly what happened. Now, my partners and I are always careful to time any sexcapades around my outbreaks, since I’d NEVER want to pass this on to someone else! Just be calm, honest, and self-empowered, end of story.”
“Telling partners has definitely been a mixed bag. Early on, I was not emotionally equipped to deal with it and made some silly choices, keeping the information to myself. I did my research and soon realized it was not only manageable, but very common; I wanted to disclose the information as soon as it felt right to give the guy so he could decide if he wanted to continue. When telling partners, I am very open and straightforward, but gentle at the same time. I say: ‘I was diagnosed with an STI from an ex-partner eight years ago and, unfortunately, this has affected my dating. I am very honest about this when dating, so the guy I’m dating knows what he is in for. It is not the end of the world, but important that you know.’ I also tend to tell them sooner rather than later, and this lets me know how genuine they are in getting to know me and how strong the connection could be.
I have had some very understanding, compassionate partners who still wanted to continue dating, and some who were scared by the stigma and the possible consequences and ended things abruptly. Honestly, in some ways, it has made me healthier than ever. I have cut back on alcohol, eating a lot of rubbish, and try to minimize stress. I also take supplements and practice yoga when possible, and haven’t had an outbreak in a while.”
“I have learned from experience that the best way to tell a potential lover that I have herpes is to be as direct as possible as soon as I know that I am sexually attracted to the other person; it’s always on my terms. I say something like, ‘I am really attracted to you and there is something I want to share with you about me. I have herpes. I’m perfectly comfortable discussing this with you and I’m open to hearing about what that brings up for you.’ In the past, I would go into the story of what happened, how I got it, or I would apologize about it; I don’t do that anymore. Herpes is a part of who I am as a sexual being. I have had mixed reactions from partners. What matters most to me is that I’ve brought it right out into the open so I don’t have to feel ashamed. Instead, I feel empowered.
I actually wrote a short story entitled ‘Last Ride on the Shame Train’ last year after dating a man who dumped me by phone because he ‘wasn’t comfortable with the herpes thing’ — after having sex with me twice (unprotected — his choice), and I was momentarily devastated by the breakup and wrote my way through my rage. That was tough, but the end result was me feeling even better about myself in the way I handled the whole fiasco. I am 100 percent on board with ending shame around this topic.”
“Having herpes sucks — there’s no two ways about it. I am single and dating, and I still have challenges telling a partner about my illness. There is so much shame involved — yes, even at my age, it’s a struggle finding a man who accepts it. … What I would recommend is telling them that you have herpes before you have sex — informed consent is very important before you start to be sexually active. Certainly don’t wait weeks or months; that is too much time to keep this from someone, and depending on where you are in your herpes management, you may infect them. The feeling of betrayal from your partner would only worsen with time, too. Also, even if they know, and you are recovering from an outbreak, don’t have sex — wait until you are fully healed.
I just told a guy I had herpes after we had sex (this was the first time I ever did that and I’ve had herpes for over 10 years, but we got caught up in the moment and things happened). Needless to say, he disappeared on me for about two weeks — I had to give him space to process the betrayal and the fact that he may have gotten herpes from me. I was able to connect with him and he shared that it brought up feelings from a previous partner who had herpes. I’m not sure what will happen, but he agreed to talk with me more. As you can see, herpes is a complicated issue to deal with in your relationship.”
“On my 19th birthday last year, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. Approaching the topic with new partners can be so daunting, especially if you haven’t known them long or if it’s just a one-night thing. What I figured out is that the response you get from those you tell all depends on your attitude toward herpes. First, you need to find a way to accept your diagnosis. For me, I realized that actually the worst thing about herpes is the stigma, and in reality it’s not much worse than having a small rash. If you come across as confident, comfortable, and knowledgeable about your herpes, then you’ll put your partner at ease and help them see it for all it really is in its destigmatized state. Remember: You are not unlovable. You will be OK. And you are so much more than your herpes.”
“I have had herpes since I was in my 20s, so I’ve had to deal with the issue through over 15 years of being single and two marriages. It has not always been easy. I tried taking medication daily to get around the issue, but I didn’t like the side effects. So, how did I tell my partners? Initially, it was more embarrassing than it is now. I would try everything to avoid the issue and found that when I finally put it on the table, all of my partners were OK with it. They each chose whether or not to participate in sex, and how, with me. I would never have sex if I had an episode or thought I was about to have one; I didn’t want to expose anyone.
I wait for a quiet personal moment and then tell my partner that I believe I have a herpes outbreak. It was more of a challenge to get it out of my mouth the first time and gets easier each time. I think it is like anything else in life: The more you do it, the better you get. It’s more of an issue in my head than it is in the guy’s perspective; I find that extremely interesting.”
“I was diagnosed with herpes when I was 22. Telling someone that I have herpes is the hardest thing for me. It breaks my heart that there’s such a negative stigma tied to it, that people assume you must be a promiscuous person. The person who gave me herpes was the person I lost my virginity to; someone I loved and thought I could trust. The fact of the matter is, there’s never the ‘perfect’ time to disclose such a personal thing about yourself, and there’s no guarantee of how the person you’re telling is going to react. … I’ve only gotten serious enough with two guys after my diagnosis to tell them, and I told both over the phone. A little over a year after my diagnosis, I started dating someone and was super nervous about how he would react. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to his face, so I called and told him. I remember the moment between the words ‘I have herpes’ and his response feeling like 100 years when really it was a matter of seconds. I reassured him that I was doing suppressive treatment and I would never, ever put him at risk. He told me it was OK, that he was sorry such a sh*tty thing happened to me, and that it didn’t change how he felt about me. We would go on to date for about a year.
The second time could not have been more different. I waited longer to tell the guy, to give him the chance to get to know me. We dated long distance — and we’d been acquaintances for years. After talking pretty much every day for four months, he came to Florida to visit his family and see me. I didn’t tell him in person because I didn’t want our first date to be tarnished by something that I feel has become such an insignificant part of who I am. I told him a couple days later when he got back to Seattle. He had lots of questions and asked for some time to think about it. He became very awkward and distant, and called it off via text about a week later, telling me he didn’t know how to deal with it properly.”
“I’ve disclosed my HSV status to three partners since I was diagnosed at the age of 24. The first time, I was so nervous about a possible rejection that I started crying before I could even say a word; I was very vulnerable. Although it wasn’t my most eloquent moment and I was being overdramatic, I found that he listened with genuine curiosity and tried to be as caring as he could. I tried to be more confident and calm after that first time. Sometimes, it’s worked out better than other times, but I think I’ve always been pretty lucky, because every time I’ve told a partner I have genital herpes, they’ve been thoughtful and affectionate. Later, some of them confessed that they tried to remain calm, although they were feeling a bit anxious and insecure about my revelation.”
“As a self-mastery expert, I help female clients navigate herpes and dating. I contracted herpes when I was 22 and went on to have a 20-year marriage and two kids. I got divorced eight years ago and then faced dating again with herpes. That’s when I went on a spiritual journey of healing and came to terms with it, along with many other aspects of my life. Now, I’m remarried to a man 10 years younger.
If you are going to be sexually active with a partner, I think it’s imperative for your own personal integrity to tell the person your herpes status before moving further. Before revealing it, I recommend that you keep interactions platonic. Then, in a quiet, private space, you can tell them something like this: ‘I have reached a place of trust with you that I am willing to be vulnerable and share something that is very private. Feel free to ask me any questions about it, and even ask for space to think about it. I’m very interested in deepening our relationship, but we can’t move forward until I share with you that I have herpes. If you’re interested in information, I have lots of resources I can share with you.’
I am open about having herpes because I want to help people lead more full lives. The stigma around it leads people to feel shame and shut down their sexuality or impact their integrity by lying or non-disclosure. All of this can be dealt with productively if you have the tools, and you can lead a very full life.”
“I have had the gamut of reactions telling partners I am HSV+ since my diagnosis when I was almost 25 — some men couldn’t care less and others told me it’s a total deal-breaker, which is a shame. I always educate my partners and let them know the risks, the likelihood of transmission, etc. — there is so much stigma around HSV for no real reason! I also let most people know that the chances they have already slept with someone with HSV, who either didn’t know it, or didn’t tell them, is … high!! I make a point to tell my partners, because clearly I got herpes from someone who did not tell me.”
“Since I have been diagnosed, one-and-a-half years ago, I’ve told two partners about my HSV status. Both went really well and surprised me with their kindness and openness. The first time, I’d actually just been diagnosed, so it felt more of like a conversation with a friend rather than a disclosure since sex was the last thing on my mind. To my surprise, he knew a lot about the skin condition already and was very comforting whenever it came up.
The lead-up to the second disclosure was a lot more difficult, because it was my first time telling a potential partner with the intention of wanting to continue to date. I tried to look for opportunities to tell her within the first couple of dates, but it always felt like such a heavy and hard conversation to bring up: I felt like there was no space to talk about safer sex options or our sexual health history, especially with another queer woman. Eventually, on about the sixth date, I blurted out everything in a super dramatic way about why I’d been putting off sex, and how hard this convo was for me to bring up. She was not as familiar with herpes and asked a couple of questions about how it’s transmitted, but assured me that it changed nothing of how she saw me.”
“I was diagnosed at 22 and contracted herpes from my at-the-time fiancé. He blamed me and said I’d given it to him due to my previously promiscuous lifestyle. It took me another year to walk away from the relationship because I felt so ashamed and believed no one else would ever want me again. Several months later, his brother accidentally let it slip out that my fiancé had contracted herpes years before me and it was what I needed to hear to leave him.
As far as communicating with your partner(s) about herpes, tell them before you have sex of any kind; if you wait, it’ll be a much harder conversation. Tell them before and they will probably feel more comfortable with your honesty and commitment to help keep them safe. If they don’t, it’s probably better you don’t even mingle. Plan on learning everything you can so you are armed with correct knowledge to help another person understand it, including knowing your own body. For instance, I get a breakout about once a year and can tell two days before the blisters appear.
I normally say something along the lines of this: ‘Before we get frisky, I have something a little uncomfortable I need you to know about me. I have herpes. I understand what I need to do and not do to keep you protected, but you are also part of this agreement. I’m really embarrassed to have this conversation with you, but I promised myself I’d respect my next partner the way I wished I would have been respected before I first got infected. I’m happy to address any concerns with you.’”
“I’ve only had positive experiences telling potential partners that I have herpes. I generally wait until it’s established that the relationship will be sexual, and try to avoid disclosing it in the heat of the moment. Make sure you don’t use negative language or show any self-pity (e.g., crying is a big no-no). How can someone accept you when you don’t accept yourself? Don’t go into any of the details of how you got herpes; that information isn’t important and is likely just going to bring up bad emotions. It definitely helps if the partner is a health care professional; my current boyfriend is a dentist and deals with oral herpes every day. He knew even more about the virus than I did!”
“I got herpes at age 38 and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I met the love of my life after that and he had herpes. I never would have been open to taking the risk had I not already had it myself. As for how I would disclose it, I would do it by email, just stating the fact that I have it, but it is under control by diet and supplements (lysine, an amino acid). I state that I have never passed it to anyone. Then, he has a choice to get involved or not. So far, no one has declined!”
“This month is actually my one-year HSV-ersary! It’s unbelievable to think about how differently I felt about my status even just one year ago. I was initially very depressed about being HSV-positive — I felt isolated and completely unlovable. … When I was diagnosed, I was very lucky in that my boyfriend at the time was very supportive; he assured me that he didn’t see me differently or love me any less, wasn’t less attracted to me, and wasn’t even scared about catching it. But his nonchalance about this was almost frustrating in a way, because he also couldn’t understand why I was so shaken by it.
In reality, I know his attitude about it came from a place of him not wanting me to let HSV control my life and how I felt about myself, but I really wished I had another HSV positive person to talk to who knew what it felt like and could be more empathetic. Since then, disclosing my status in any setting has been less and less terrifying, and although it’s still nerve-wracking, I feel pretty confident in knowing how to talk about it, and I genuinely want to share my experience. I usually emphasize the fact that HSV is ridiculously easy to catch, even if you’re always super safe (like I was)! I also make sure to let anyone know who I talk to about it that a high percentage of people have it, that it is totally harmless, and that it usually isn’t tested for in routine screenings. I’m really honest about how it affects my life (and how mostly — it doesn’t). And I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how receptive people are to chatting about it. Most people have a lot of questions, which is the best, in my opinion — the more people understand, the more we chip away slowly at the stigma and ignorance around it.”
“I was diagnosed with genital herpes 10 years ago after having slept with two people, both using protection. It was completely devastating then (purely because of the stigma around it — it was/has been dormant in me) but I had a supportive boyfriend who said it wasn’t a big deal. Telling people I date makes me feel incredibly vulnerable, and at first I worried what people would think about me. The conversations are pretty awkward honestly, but of the seven people I’ve told since, only one didn’t want to have sex. I think the key is equipping yourself with the facts — it’s super common, it’s really not a big deal, it doesn’t mean your partner will automatically get it (none of mine have!), and most importantly, it doesn’t say anything about you.”
“I’ve been positive with genital herpes for five years now. It was definitely hard to tell partners about my diagnosis. However, I believe it was hard because of the pressure I put on myself. In the instances that I did tell, I always got positive responses because they were with partners who truly cared about me. When I told a new partner, I always tried to not make it a huge deal. I was confident when I told them, and just laid out the facts. Responses were always better than I thought. My partners were always very thankful that I was honest, and genuinely felt bad that this was something I was going through. I did have times where people did not feel comfortable to be intimate, but that was something I knew could happen, and you can’t blame someone for not wanting to put themselves at risk.
I thankfully have a success story that came out of this situation. After being diagnosed, I, of course, felt all the things anyone would feel: depressed, anxious, scared, hopeless, the list goes on. Even though I had this with me now, I still didn’t want to give up on love because finding that special person to spend the rest of my life with has always been something I’ve wanted. I went to positivesingles.com [a dating site for people with herpes and other STIs] and started going on a few dates. Fast forward a couple years and I met someone on the site that just blew me away. I knew from our very first date that he was ‘The One.’ We have been together for a year-and-a-half now, and just moved in together.
The point is, no matter what, telling someone you are positive is a hard situation, but finding someone in a similar situation makes life SO much easier. On the other hand, I have a best friend who is positive, too, and she is in a very happy and successful relationship with someone who is not positive. Things can work out either way. However, I think we need to break the stigma of both herpes and those specialized dating sites, and more people need to give it a try!”
As you can see, revealing you have herpes is different for everybody. However, it’s crucial — the more you talk about it, the more you’ll help break the stigma revolving around it. Plus, as some of the women above found, it can bring you and your partner even closer as far as intimacy and communication are concerned, which can only enhance your relationship.