Learning that you’ve tested positive for genital herpes (or any STI) can bring up a lot of questions: “What are my treatment options?”, “How do I tell my partner?”, and importantly, “What does this mean for my sex life?”
Despite how common herpes is, many people simply don’t understand how the virus works, what flare-ups look like, and how it affects sex.
A positive herpes diagnosis is NOT the end of your sex life as you know it. In fact, dealing with herpes can be an opportunity to bring more open communication to your sex life — and sexual communication of any kind is a gateway to more pleasure. We put together this guide with six key takeaways that can help you let go of some stigma and own your power between the sheets again.
Know the facts
Herpes stigma is abundant in our society, but that stigma is also laden with a lot of confusion about what a herpes diagnosis even means. So, to get us started, let’s break down some of the facts.
There are two strains of herpes, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Sometimes people believe that particular strains of herpes can only live in your mouth or only live in your genitals, but that isn’t true. While HSV-1 more commonly lives in your mouth (cold sores, anyone?), it can also be transmitted to genitals. And while HSV-2 more commonly lives in your genitals, it can also be transmitted to a mouth.
Despite what your high school health class may have taught you, herpes lesions aren’t always super obvious. In fact, many people don’t show symptoms at all (or aren’t able to recognize their symptoms). Because herpes can be asymptomatic, most people living with herpes don’t know that they have it.
Herpes is a virus that you’ll carry for your entire life, but that doesn’t mean you’ll always be in an active period. Herpes is a highly treatable (though not curable) STI, and if you’re taking medication to control the virus, you may go years between flare-ups (you may also hear them called outbreaks). Herpes is most transmittable during those flare-ups periods of viral shedding. It can be transmitted during latent periods, too, but it’s much less likely.
Perhaps the biggest myth of all is that having herpes doesn’t mean that you can’t have positive, healthy, enjoyable sexual experiences anymore. That’s a myth. Having a positive herpes diagnosis isn’t the end of your sex life — that’s just stigma talking.
Understand stigma’s effect
Stigma isn’t just something that you experience during interpersonal interactions, it’s something that you internalize, too. Learning that you’ve tested positive for an STI can come with big emotions, even for the most sex-positive and stigma-crushing of us. A positive diagnosis might lead you to experience lower self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and difficulty orgasming, just to name some common experiences.
Those are all stigma at work. Make strides to shift your thinking from “I’m broken/dirty/wrong/unlovable because of my diagnosis” to “I’m a human who has a totally treatable, common virus.” Normalizing your diagnosis can help you let go of some of that internalized stigma, and it can also make it easier to talk about your status with partners, friends, and healthcare providers.
Make a disclosure decision
If you’re thinking about having sex with someone, it’s a good idea to share your STI status in advance. Don’t wait until things are hot and heavy in the bedroom to disclose, though. Have the conversation fully clothed and in a place where you feel safe and comfortable. If you come to the conversation calm and prepared — maybe with stats about how common herpes is, and how treatable — your partner is likely to respond in a similar way.
Come prepared with answers to questions your partner may ask, like “What does that mean for us having sex?” Know that you don’t have to answer all questions, though. Prying questions like “How did you get it?” only feed stigma and curiosity; they don’t actually give any useful information. (And for the record, it’s pretty hard to know how you got herpes, and it’s quite possible that the partner you disclose to already has it but is asymptomatic and doesn’t realize).
You also don’t have to disclose to every single person in your life. STI stigma is real, and if you’re worried that disclosing to a particular person could put you in harm’s way, then you don’t have to disclose (and it may be time to re-evaluate your relationship with that person). But, if you’re planning on having sex with that person, you should disclose. Not just because some states have laws around STI disclosure, but also because everyone deserves to enter into sexual experiences fully informed.
Make a sexual safety plan
Herpes isn’t a huge deal, but you probably want to prevent passing it to partners if at all possible. Luckly, herpes is highly treatable. With treatment, herpes flares — the periods of active viral shedding where you are most contagious — can be few and far between. Coming up with a sexual safety plan with your partners can help you feel confident going into sexual situations regardless of how long it’s been since your last flare.
You know your herpes best, so before you come up with a sexual safety plan, take note of what your flare-ups look like. Do you get lesions or does your skin just feel particularly tender? Where do you experience symptoms?
Knowing what your herpes looks and feels like can help you decide on a safety plan that is right for you and your partners. That might involve particular barrier methods, like dental dams, condoms, and gloves, or it might mean that your partner decides they’re comfortable with the transmission risk during flare-free periods, but you’ll do other pleasurable things during flares. If you are in an ongoing relationship with a partner who doesn’t have herpes, you might consider taking an antiviral medication every day to reduce or even eliminate your flare-ups, and lower the chances you’ll transmit the virus to your partner by 50%)
Your sexual safety is something for you and your partners to discuss, and there is no one right way to have a safety plan. Just find what works for you!
Enjoy other pleasure routes
Some folks may prefer to not have sex at all during flares, opting instead of non-sexual touch and care. On the other hand, some people may just want to switch things up. Pleasure doesn’t have to be taken off the table during a flare-up period.
If you or your partner is experiencing a flare period, talk together about what might help you feel good. Maybe you’ll opt for sensual massage or for sexting each other. Maybe you’ll masturbate together or try out a different sex act that is a lower risk during your flare-up.
Basically, know that you don’t have to shut your sexual self down because you’re having a flare-up. You can choose to do other sensual/sexual activities that can help foster body positivity and closeness with your partner. Or, if you want to take this as a period of rest, that’s fine, too – the choice is yours.
Let yourself feel good (don’t punish yourself)
When it comes to having sex after learning that you have herpes, there’s one thing you really need to know: you are still — and always — worthy and deserving of pleasurable sexual experiences.
Even if you consider yourself a sex-positive person, learning that you have an STI can throw you for an emotional loop. It’s okay to feel those big feelings, but don’t punish yourself for your diagnosis. Create intentional time in your day, every day, to let yourself feel good (in sexual or non-sexual ways). By carving out that time you’re telling yourself (and that little, mean voice in the back of your head) that you deserve to feel good.
Having a strong support system can go a long way, here. Where stigma might be making your self-esteem drop, your support system can say “hey, you’re a pretty awesome person.” Organizations like The STI Project and the American Sexual Health Organization (ASHA) can help you feel less alone, even if just in the digital space.
Sex with herpes is not only possible but can be as pleasurable as ever.
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.