He drove us to his place after two vodka sodas and a dirty martini. Our first date had gone better than I could have ever expected. I don’t know if it was the fact that he waited outside of my apartment to open his passenger door for me, or how he took my card and hid it in his pocket when I tried to pay for my drinks; all I knew is that he had done enough to “pass the test.” Once inside, he gave me a tour of his house, introduced me to his cat, and even put on the Westminster Dog Show episode of Netflix’s 7 Days Out because he thought I’d like it. It was sweet, watching him do all of that as if he needed to do so to invite me to his bedroom. I giggled, placed my head on his shoulder, and next thing I know, I was being led upstairs—picturing future dates with every step. But when I finally got to the edge of the bed, he said, “Hey, I should probably tell you I have herpes,” and my mind went blank.
As sexually educated as I thought I was, I had no idea what it was like to have sex with someone with herpes. My only knowledge of it was that it was incurable and transferred orally, vaginally, and anally. I began to overwhelm myself with a plethora of questions, some of which I was too nervous to ask for fear of putting him in an uncomfortable position. Sure, an STI like herpes might be a turnoff for many—it certainly was one for me at that time—but letting that aspect of his life define him felt wrong. There was no reason for me to act cold and uninterested when I genuinely wanted to get to know him more.
The truth is, no one is ever going to teach you how to have sex with herpes or with someone who has it because our culture has demonized those with a diagnosis. Nothing is appealing about herpes, but there’s also no point in cultivating more negativity around it. Before I went on a date with this guy, I never thought I’d run into a situation like this—the majority of us never do. But if you’re ever in the same position I was, or you’re looking to broaden your STI education, I have good news for you: having sex with someone with herpes is doable.
My relationship with him was short-lived—two months, to be exact. We weren’t right for each other for non-sexual reasons, but we had lots of fun in the little time we spent together. In the end, I learned various tips and tricks that will follow me down my romantic life for years to come. I may not always need them, but they’re good to have in storage. So, here I am sharing them.
Have an in-depth conversation with your partner.
If you haven’t made a habit out of asking your partners for their sexual health history, this is the sign you’ve been looking for. Getting tested every six months, or in between partners, is crucial for hassle-free sex. Not only that, but putting all of your questions and concerns out on the table creates a comfortable environment for you and your partner to share personal information—such as an STI diagnosis. According to the CDC, “Genital herpes is an STD caused by two types of viruses… Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).” Both are common in the United States. While herpes is known for outbreak symptoms such as painful urination, genital discomfort, and sores around the mouth or genitals, it’s also known for flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and headaches. Unfortunately, a lot of people forget to mention how both strains of herpes are usually asymptomatic. For that very reason, it’s essential to get an STI screening from your primary care doctor, Title-X clinic, or online at-home test-kits. Be kind and patient with your partner; this is probably a sensitive topic for them. However, you should know it’s okay to decline sex from them. If they told you about their diagnosis, it’s because they want you to be aware that depending on their treatment (if any), there might be a chance of transmission—meaning you’re more than allowed to say “no.” Choosing to have sex with someone with herpes takes a lot of thought and responsibility, so think it over before doing so.
Some questions to ask your herpes-positive partner are:
“What type of herpes do you have?”
“Are you on any sort of antiviral medication? If so, how does it work?
“When’s the last time you had an outbreak?”
“How have you handled sex and foreplay in the past?”
“Is there a specific activity we should refrain from doing?”
Do your research.
After finding out about my former partner’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time on WebMD, Healthline, and Reddit. I asked everything from “How to have safe sex with someone with herpes?” to “I kissed someone with herpes, does this mean I have it?” It seems silly, but it was incredibly reassuring. More likely than not, you’re going to get the majority of your questions answered by your partner, but it doesn’t hurt to do some research of your own. Familiarize yourself with the virus and its risks and read sex-and-relationships-focused posts on herpes forums (I found r/Herpes to be super helpful!). Lastly, if you’d love to give yourself some peace of mind, talk to a medical professional. Tell them about your situation and all of the concerns you may have—chances are, they’ve already heard that story. Not to mention, there’s a massive chunk of sexual healthcare professionals who work at free or low-cost clinics, so cost shouldn’t be a worrisome factor.
Ask yourself if you’re ready to be exposed to the risks.
Even if you’re head-over-heels for your partner, you need to realize that having sex with someone who has herpes can put you at risk for it. The reason why it’s so important to know whether or not your partner is on antiviral medication for their herpes is that it can dramatically reduce the transmission rate. In my case, my male partner, who was taking Valtrex (a drug prescribed for HSV2) every day, had a 5-10% transmission rate for women—still, we opted to use condoms every time for my peace of mind. Even though I liked him a lot, I was still indecisive about whether or not I wanted a serious, monogamous relationship with him, which is why we both agreed to rely on protection. However, amidst my research, I read several posts on couples who had decided to date long-term and stopped using condoms altogether. Some mentioned how they ended up giving it to or getting it from their partner, while others said that they hadn’t experienced transmission at all. From the looks of it, everybody seems to have a different experience with having sex, protected or unprotected, with someone who has herpes. Keep this in mind when figuring out if you feel like you’re ready for it. Condoms are reliable, and they do protect you from most STIs, but keep in mind that depending on your partner, their herpes might still be able to be transmitted with the use of condoms.
Experiment with lube.
If you choose to have sex with a sex-positive partner, there might be a slight chance that you’re going through boxes of condoms. I’ll admit it: I’m not the biggest fan of condom sex. Don’t get me wrong, they’re great, and they’re helpful, and I use them whenever I need to. But we can all agree that unprotected sex is a tiny bit more enjoyable. Back then, condoms weren’t an option for me; if anything, they were a necessity, which means my partner and I had to also go through a lot of lube. Even though there’s a multitude of pre-lubed condoms on the market, chances are they won’t feel slippery after a couple of thrusts. Luckily for everyone, there’s also a crazy array of lubes out there for you and your partner to play around with (go capitalism?). Using lube will seriously make your sex life a lot more fun and a lot less painful.
I want to apologize if my tips have frightened you about this particular scenario. But I’ve noticed fear is a tactic that keeps people from putting themselves at risk. Are folks with herpes dangerous? Not at all—I’m pretty sure you might know a couple with it. But you should still be aware of everyone you’re sleeping with, as well as their sexual-health history. The only thing that separates sex without herpes from sex with herpes is the fact that there needs to be more precaution. Which, if you think about it, isn’t a huge inconvenience when you thoroughly enjoy the company of the person you’re seeing. These tips won’t keep you from getting herpes, but they should make you realize that you can not only reduce the risks but also allow yourself to enjoy the sex.