New love is supposed to be about anticipation, romance, and discovery. But after an amazing first date, instead of daydreaming about the future, I lie in bed wondering which moment I'm going to have to punctuate with the news that I have an incurable sexually transmitted infection. The conversation has to happen, but timing is everything.
I've thought about just slipping it in casually, somewhere between the appetizer and the salad: "These croutons are so good, and the wine's got great legs. Speaking of legs, I have something interesting between mine ..."
Or maybe during the trailers before a movie: "I'm so glad you like your popcorn butter layered, too. And you've got to have a soda. It's such a rare treat, since caffeine is a no on the dietary list for someone who has herpes, like me."
But what I really want is to say this, just before the first kiss, when they're close and I can feel their breath against my skin: "I have herpes, and I'm sorry to ruin the moment, but I need to know right now if this is going to be a situation where you say you're OK with it but then you're afraid to touch my vagina because you might have overlooked a paper cut on your hand. That would just break my heart, and I'd rather remember you this way, looking into my eyes full of love and naïveté, than the way you'll look when you break up with me six months from now, and I'll always wonder if it was because of me or that."
Best-case scenario: they're either in public health or also have herpes. It doesn't change the mechanics, because protection from pregnancy and other STIs is important, but it's exciting to be able to relax, knowing my partner doesn't think that having herpes makes me a whore.
The truth is, 90 percent of Americans have been exposed to herpes, and one in six have some strain of it. Many don't even know they have it. But hesitation and fear are as real as statistics, and there's no sugarcoating that herpes is painful, and that having it leaves you more vulnerable to other STIs. Without medication, I've avoided symptoms for almost two years. But when they're there, I can hardly walk, my body aching nauseatingly from the inside out.
Still, herpes has forced me to have honest conversations about sexual health earlier—conversations that leave me open to judgment and rejection. I just don't go on dates with people I think will disrespect me, trivialize my experience, or stigmatize me as dirty or damaged. That's been important for me as a person who has experienced a lot of sexual trauma that, for a long time, left me unable to insist a partner use protection or get tested.
Herpes sucks, but it hasn't slowed down my sex life at all. As for when to tell, I've fallen comfortably into the second-to-fourth-date range—long enough for me to know if the person can be trusted with sensitive information, and long enough for them to know if they like me enough to keep trucking. I've found that right in the middle of a heavy make-out session is perfect—something like this:
"You're such a great kisser. Our chemistry is unbelievable. Hey, you know what else is unbelievable? I have herpes! But you can't get it from kissing me, so don't stop. I've got a pamphlet for you later."
This article appeared in print with the headline "This Magic Moment"
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