What responsibilities do you have as someone living with herpes or any other incurable sexually transmitted infection (STI)? Chances are you didn't get sex education in school or at home. And if you did, the chances are that it covered STIs through a disproportionately medical approach and a fear-lead tone that made you want to do anything but listen. No one prepares you for the possibility of contracting an STI, how to disclose it to partners, how to take care of your mental health, or which boundaries you should set for yourself, and this is where iPlaySafe comes in.
Firstly, let's clarify what we are talking about when we say "people living with herpes". This means people who tested positive for either HSV-1 or HSV-2, regardless of where the symptoms are showing up in their body. It doesn't exclusively mean people whose symptoms are showing up on their genitals. Cold sores are herpes.
So what are the responsibilities of someone living with herpes? In this article we're going to explore how to date responsibly, how to have sex responsibly, and how to self-care responsibly.
STI Status Disclosure
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about dating for people living with herpes is disclosure. Why is disclosure important? Because herpes, whether it's oral or genital herpes, is not a "big deal" medically speaking, but it's still something that people should be made aware of in advance of direct contact.
It's your responsibility to bring it up before any sexual contact between the two (or more) of you. And it's your responsibility to be clear in the information that you are giving. We tend to think of disclosure as a once-in-a-relationship kind of thing. But it's a conversation you should initiate every time you're experiencing symptoms. Don't just to let your partner know that you've tested positive for HSV-1 or HSV-2 and let them decide if they want to be intimate with you. Keep them up to date as to when is or isn't a good time to have sexual contact with you.
Now, upon contracting herpes or any other incurable STI, many people tend to think that their dating pool options should shrink to only people who have the same condition. That's what they think is responsible, because why on earth would they put people who haven't tested positive at risk? Is it though? No. It may seem like a reasonable thought, but it's not. You are not responsible for anyone else's health but your own. So you would be putting someone at risk if you didn't disclose or if you didn't disclose in a timely manner. But if you did, they are choosing to be intimate with you in an informed and adult way. You just have to accept that someone is choosing to be with you regardless of your status, and not feel guilty about it.
Protection Against Herpes
Let's talk about barrier methods and protection. There are more chances of transmission of HSV-2 (genital herpes) when it comes from a male body to a female body. Should you use protection during every encounter? Well firstly, make sure that you're not just thinking of protection in terms of transmitting something to your partner, but also in terms of contracting something from them. We tend to forget that there's a lot more STIs than the one we have that are also very common. Have you had that conversation with your partner? When were they last tested? Have you shared your results with each other? The iPlaySafe app is a great way to share your verified status with a partner.
Once you've assessed the broader view of protection, decide if this is something that makes sense with your body. Just because you are living with an incurable STI doesn't mean you should be forcing yourself to only have sex with a condom. Using protection is a decision that you and your partner are entitled to make together. It's a conversation that you can return to at every sexual encounter if you feel the need to. Only you are responsible for your sexual health.
There are going to be partners who will care about transmission, and there are partners for whom transmission is not even a big deal. They are entitled to think whatever they want to think about it, and to make their own informed decisions. Your job is just to disclose in a timely and clear manner to advocate for the protection that you want to use for your health. Create space to receive their protection preferences, and then together you can make a decision.
So with owning our status comes the need to be educated and knowledgeable about the condition we're living with. It's very empowering to be able to answer potential partners' questions with medically accurate information. But is that really our responsibility? No. We absolutely can... we can be the people that they turn to with questions and we can send them resources, but we don't have to.
There's a wonderful place called Google which has all of the answers. (To add a small caveat - make sure you pick verified sources). This means our partners can go on their own journey of accruing knowledge independently from us.
We don't have to know all of the answers. Just because we live with this condition doesn't make us all sexual health educators or doctors. We can very much establish a boundary and ask partners to go and do their own research independently from us.
Suppressive therapy is when you take antivirals on a daily basis to prevent the frequency, severity, and duration of outbreaks. This is instead of only taking them when experiencing herpes outbreaks. This is not an option for everyone. Suppressive therapy may be prescribed by your doctor only if you are experiencing 6 or more outbreaks a year.
When most people test positive for herpes they want to be on suppressive therapy immediately. Why? Because it gives them peace of mind that they're doing everything possible not to be a risk to their partner. They also think it proves to their partner that they're doing everything they can to not be transmitting the herpes virus to them. But being on suppressive therapy doesn't make you a responsible person. And living with herpes and not being on it doesn't make you an irresponsible person.
First of all, you have to see if your body copes well with being on this kind of treatment. Some people may be happy to take a drug every day, but others aren't. Wherever you fall on that spectrum should be your decision for your health. You are responsible for your own health. So if being on these antivirals is causing you side effects, or taking medication daily makes you feel uneasy, you are totally entitled to choose to be on it or not.
That doesn't mean that you are responsible or irresponsible. It is a choice. It is an option. It's great to have options, but it is not an obligation. Some partners will only feel comfortable being intimate with you if you are on suppressive therapy. This might make you feel pressured to be on it. But you don't have a responsibility to be on it or to do what your partner wants. You have a responsibility to do what is best for your body.
If you're experiencing a herpes outbreak regularly and it's painful and hard to manage, and you want to reduce the frequency of outbreaks, suppressive therapy is a good option. But don't be on it because someone else is holding it as a condition to be intimate with you.
What you put in your body is a personal choice, and some people are happy to take medication every day, while other people aren't. Wherever you fall on that spectrum is your decision, but you are entitled to make any decision you want for your body.
Living with herpes or other sexually transmitted infections isn't always easy, but it is extremely common. The more we normalise talking about it and set clear boundaries to protect our health (physical and mental), the more chance we have of breaking societal taboos about the topic.