“I just found out that I have herpes. I’m not sure when I got it or who from. I’m seeing this guy casually, and I haven’t told him. If we use a condom, do I have to?”
– Feeling Dirty in Pierson
Let me put it this way: when you found out, were you pissed?
Do you wish that you’d been given a choice whether or not to risk your health before a sexual encounter?
I laud your commitment to condom use. Condoms are a wonderful way to hinder the transmission of most STDs, not to mention pregnancy. But even a condom is not 100 percent reliable, especially if the STD manifests itself outside of areas covered by the condom (such as herpes, HPV and crabs). That’s also assuming that the condom is used correctly, which is not a guarantee. While many people are willing to risk an STD when it comes to someone they care for, you can’t make that choice for somebody else. How would you feel if this boy you’re hooking up with had an STD he wasn’t telling you about? No matter how casual the relationship, there ought to be enough trust that your partner won’t screw you like that (pun intended).
That said, I surely understand your reluctance to reveal that kind of information about yourself. Nobody wants that reputation. College romances being what they are, it’s more common to trust someone with physical intimacy than details about your sexual history. Unfortunately, now you’re in a position where you’ll have to trust somebody with the second before the first. If there’s any upside to this situation, it’s that you’ll have to be far more careful than most people in college with sex, and maybe you’ll save yourself some grief that way.
You’re probably having a hard time incorporating an STD into your self-image. Whatever you’re afraid other people might think of you, you’re also probably struggling with thinking it about yourself. It’s important that you understand that not everyone with an STD is slutty, or dirty or any of those things. Lots of people in college have them, many without even knowing it, and many of those who do know are too self-conscious to tell even their partners. That sense of shame is part of why STDs are so prevalent, i.e., part of why you contracted one without even knowing you were at risk. Now that you do know, you have to take responsibility for it and make sure you don’t put others in the same position.
Besides, most serious relationships start out casually. Who knows where your exploits with this fine fellow may go? If you two did start to get really fond of each other, you’d have to tell him eventually. At that point, he’d probably be at least a little pissed that you’d waited so long. No sense in ruining something that might be good, just because you’re embarrassed now.
And no, letting people know you have an STD won’t put a stake through the heart of your romantic life. I know several people in serious relationships where one or both partners have an STD. They use protection, and do their best to communicate with each other about it (issues that range from their qualms and fears, to letting each other know when they’re having an outbreak etc.). I also know people with an STD who are not in a relationship, and they still have sex, too. They always use a condom, and they always tell their partner. Generally, they are no more sexually frustrated than anyone else on a college campus is. So there you go.
One more thing: Beware oral sex! It’s astonishing how few people know how easily you can get STDs that way. Since it’s commonly used as a less serious way to get involved than actual intercourse, a lot of people assume that it doesn’t carry the same risks. Not so! It absolutely does. All it avoids is the risk of pregnancy. Porous tissue doesn’t understand the difference between Sex and Not Sex. So don’t let anyone go down on you either without telling them the risks involved.
You should also consider treatment options. Suppressive therapy is available, reducing your chances of transmitting the disease by about 70 percent. It’s kind of like birth control for herpes. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use condoms, or shouldn’t let your partner know, even if you are on suppressive therapy as well.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling your partner, there are plenty of ways the two of you can still have fun. You don’t even have to be too creative: Think back to stuff you learned about in grade school. It’s a pain, but from now on you’re going to have to consider carefully before anything more serious than that. Just be thankful life invented both condoms and alternative ways to get you off.
Tira is a junior in Swing Space and the scene advice columnist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org