Herpes, Two Years Later: On Sex Without Condoms

Condoms also make great party hats, just FYI.

Condoms also make great party hats, just FYI.

I had to write an awkward email a few weeks ago. A journalist wrote a piece about me (and my genital herpes) for a very prominent, respected publication in the United Kingdom, and she included a line about how I’ve never had sex without a condom. It was a reasonable assumption; in my essay for Women’s Health, I discussed how shocked I was to get diagnosed with herpes when I had never had “unprotected” sex in my life. Had never. Past tense. I sucked it up and sent the author a short note, she made a quick correction, and no one was the wiser. But the exchange stuck with me, if for no other reason than for how self-conscious it made me feel. There was a strange shame in telling this relative stranger that I have had unprotected sex. More than once. Despite having genital herpes.

When I got diagnosed with herpes and for quite some time after, having sex without a condom was unthinkable. As much as condoms don’t 100% prevent transmission of herpes between partners—the virus is transmitted through skin contact, not fluids—condoms do bring that risk down considerably. And I wanted to do everything to prevent giving what felt at the time like a curse to another person. The idea of transmitting to someone was horrifying, revolting, and distinctly not arousing. It was nine or ten months before I even felt comfortable sleeping naked with a partner, as if the virus was suddenly going to spring into alertness and rub itself all over my boyfriend’s crotch while I was unconscious. I did not trust my body, a fracture it took a very long time to heal.

It’s worth noting that I didn’t understand the appeal of having sex without using a condom in the first place. Despite having abstinence-only sex education in my public high school, I absorbed the message that condoms were a must from my family and from the sex education I cobbled together on my own. Having sex without a condom simply wasn’t worth the cognitive dissonance of risk, irresponsibility, and fear.

When I became sexually active, my primary fear also wasn’t of getting an STI—it was of pregnancy. STIs seemed like something that happened to other people, but volunteering at Planned Parenthood had taught me that accidental pregnancy could happen to anyone. I was vigilant about condom usage because I knew how complicated the experience of getting an abortion would be if I ever found myself in that position. I am staunchly pro-choice, and I’m passionate about protecting reproductive rights, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather avoid such a situation in the first place.

Years ago, I harangued a bro friend for being what I perceived as sexually irresponsible. He admitted to having casual sex with women at his college who he didn’t know very well without using a condom because, as he said, “They’re on the pill.” This is actually my only memory of discussing herpes before my own diagnosis. “That’s how you get herpes,” I scolded him, with more judgment than I’d like to admit. “You need to be more careful.”

Years later we bumped into each other on MetroNorth and I apologized for being such a bitch. I told him about my diagnosis and we laughed hard at the weird irony of it. But he said I’d been right, even if teenage Ella was super harsh—he’d later had an HIV scare and had been vigilant ever since.


It was a long-term partner’s suggestion to forgo the Trojans for the first time. The prospect had never occurred to me before, and I looked for my past reservations about condomless sex but was surprised when I couldn’t find them. Since we both knew our status and I hadn’t had an outbreak for quite some time, we decided it was a calculated risk we wanted to take together. While the withdrawal method is roundly mocked and discouraged, it worked for us, like it does for 96% of couples when done correctly (site-note: a guy saying “don’t worry, I’ll just pull out” does not count as “done correctly”). Although I was still concerned with pregnancy, I was oddly zen about the possibility. Getting diagnosed with herpes had put me squarely in touch with my sexual health and agency, and I had a privileged “whatever will be, will be” attitude aided by solid health insurance.

Besides, I just didn’t think of myself as the one in harm’s way. At the time I was on a daily course of Valtrex, also known as suppressive therapy, to lessen the risk of transmission. But condoms felt symbolic, and I had to decide whether or not I was comfortable playing what at first felt like Russian roulette with my partner’s health. Being herpes+ is a responsibility that I take very seriously, and the idea of transmitting to someone I care about does scare the shit out of me, even now, simply because I want to protect the people I love from a nasty cultural stigma.

But I also respect their ability to make the choices that are right for them, and eventually I came to accept that it wouldn’t be my “fault” if I transmitted herpes to a partner. Anyone who knows they have an STI and has sex with someone without disclosing is, frankly, an asshole in my book. Informed consent is not only important, it’s crucial. However, adults are not being reckless if they make these decisions together. If a partner is willing to have sex without a barrier method knowing full well that I am herpes+, and we are both sober, and he has thought the decision through, and we have a discussion about how we are going to handle birth control, the logical conclusion is, “Why not?”

And boy, does sex without a condom feel good. Fucking incredible, actually. I don’t want to say that sex with condoms sucks, because condoms are useful and important. I would never have sex without a condom with a partner I don’t trust to the bone, no pun intended, and definitely not on impulse. I am very much on team condom. But sex without condoms is physically more comfortable for me. There is less friction, less need for copious lubricant, and I don’t have to worry as much about getting UTIs or yeast infections. As a result I can have sex for a longer period of time. And sex without condoms is so transgressive and contrary to everything I know that it became a turn-on in and of itself.

It also feels close. Tender. Loving. It means something substantial about a relationship, that a partner will go to such an intimate place with me. Being close to me, worshipping me like this, means my partners have overpowered the stigma that tells them I am ruined. I mean more to them than the virus woven through my DNA. It is the ultimate act of acceptance, trust, and love. The day I began having sex without condoms was the day I stopped seeing my body as a risk, because I finally saw it through their eyes.


Eventually I found myself at a predictable place: at Rite Aid, buying Plan B at midnight on a Saturday. Although I felt self-conscious, the experience was more hilarious than it was embarrassing—weirdly enough, the cashier commended me on being responsible, and the woman behind me in line also had a little purple box in her hands. But I did not relish the extra period in the middle of my cycle, and the following four days of cramps. It was enough to help me make up my mind for good: enough of this, I want an IUD.

I am lucky to have a doctor who didn’t question my choices. She didn’t remind me I have herpes, or ask if I was in a serious relationship. I said I wanted an IUD, and she said okay. We reviewed the different models and I chose Skyla as the smallest and most highly recommended for young women who haven’t had children. My insurance cleared it, and I made an appointment to have the deed done. After hearing horror stories for months from friends who had painful insertions, I was scared shitless that I would scream or, oh god, piss in fright on the doctor’s table. Instead I felt a fierce pinch and then bam, I was baby-proofed.

I realized as a partner and I lay in a sticky heap of limbs and breathless wonder that sex would never be the same again.


At the end of the day, the fact that I (sometimes) fuck without condoms says more about my partners than it does about me. It says that they are kind, and educated, and brave in their own specific way. I never once faced the decision of whether or not I would be comfortable dating someone with an STI; I’d like to think I wouldn’t have let herpes be a deal breaker if I were in their shoes. All of my partners started off vigilant about protecting themselves and relaxed as we became closer, as they saw how little of an impact herpes had on my life. But because I do not know for sure what it must feel like to take that calculated risk, I can only admire them.

Some of my past partners would be quick to tell me to shut the fuck up, that I’m not a “risk” and sex without a condom is no selfless act on their part. To which I say, touché. Not everything is about my herpes. SHOCKING. But it’s a point that I missed for so long and is largely missing from the way we talk about sexual health: an STI does not ruin your sex life, it doesn’t need to curtail it, and it doesn’t taint you. My body is mine. It is strong and it is beautiful and it is soft and it is not disgusting. I refuse to be at war with it anymore.

I fully expect this essay to ruffle feathers. It would have ruffled mine once. What I’ve said runs counter to how we discuss sexual health, and this is part of why I have pushed back against the notion that I am a role model for other people living with herpes. I will not tell you how to live your life, because at the end of the day, you are the person who lives it. And you have the right to have all of the information necessary to make the choices that make sense for you. And let me be very clear: I am not advocating for sex without condoms, or for the careless spread of herpes (hah), or for being cavalier about birth control. What I am advocating for is owning our sexual pleasure. We should respect our bodies, not by preserving them with little purity rings but by honoring our desires and sexual health. We should be honest and open in our communication, even if it’s scary. And we should be able to make the right choices for ourselves.

I’m done viewing my sexuality as a threat. The only thing put at risk when I have sex without condoms is the stigma of herpes itself.

You might also like: How I Lost My Post-Herpes Virginity

Recommended readingCDC to stop using “unprotected sex” for “condomless sex”

A Trans Man Discusses PrEP and Condomless Casual Sex

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35 thoughts on “Herpes, Two Years Later: On Sex Without Condoms

  1. hi ella
    today i was told to listen to a podcast you made with new york magazine. it was wonderful and gave me some hope for my future. this morning i had the inevitable discussion which as per usual left me in tears, and alone. he was the perfect gentleman about it, but it hurts so bad. so i guess i’ll be turning to you and your wonderful blog for comfort. i do have a question regarding transmission. my doctor informed me (over 10 years ago now), that condoms were pointless as they don’t help in any fashion. i’m horrified to think i was given the wrong information and maybe if i had known they do in fact reduce risk, this morning may not have been a complete disaster. (a lot of the information i was told by sexual health clinics has unfortunately been blown way out of proportion it seems) i have not had an outbreak for around 10 years, but i still beat myself up like it was the day i had my first outbreak. i am hoping that through your articles i may be able to heal some of the damage i have inflicted upon myself. sending love and thanks xx

    • Condoms absolutely do help prevent transmission! They don’t prevent it 100% because herpes isn’t transmitted through fluids, but they do help cover the affected area during sex. Condoms, dental dams and other barrier methods can help. You can also look into suppressive therapy like a daily dose of Valtrex to help suppress herpes in your system. If you haven’t had an outbreak in 10 years, suppressive therapy probably isn’t necessary but could provide peace of mind. And if you haven’t had an outbreak in 10 years, you’re super unlikely to transmit. Best of luck!!

  2. You are soooo gross, even without the herpes… Btw , your behavior is proof you are highly depressed and screaming for attn u need and love. You thrive on any type of attn , good or bad, preferably good! That’s not unique at all, what makes you bat shit crazy is the extremes you will go to get it. If you continue you will have several suicide attempts in the next decade, hopefully for your sake, they are all fake attempts. I could careless, because your behavior is pure evil, and only spreads evil , to gullible women at their weakest.

  3. This meant the world to me. I just got
    Out of a relationship of 2 years, only to find out my ex had been plagued by terror of getting it someday. Even though we were safe. He ended things because he could not commit to being with someone who compromises his sexual health, leaving me feeling dirty and like there will never be anyone out there. So thank you. For hope. For confidence. For solidarity.

  4. You are so strong and brave! I found out a few years ago that I had contracted herpes. I was scared and alone. It took me months and months to finally tell a friend that I had it and she was extremely supportive. Recently I had met the guy of my dreams! Or so I thought….once I told him I had herpes he was in shock. He didn’t say much. He said he still liked me but didn’t want to be the asshole who left me bc of herpes. Well we never finished the conversation and went about our “normal” lives. For about 3 weeks after that he became distant, short conversations, would t txt or call when he said he would. I asked him what was wrong on multiple occasions, asked if the herpes bothered him and he just kept saying he was busy. Finally I had to end the relationship with him bc I was so unhappy. I cried and cried. How could someone who claimed to care about me so much just stop. Just not care at all….well I finally found out it was my herpes diagnosis. He said that once he found out he was instantly turned off. Despite having herpes 101 ( I educated him on what herpes is, how it’s stigmatized and how it poses no health risks), he just couldn’t get past it. He said he didn’t tell me bc he was sparing my feelings. That’s bullshit. He should have talked to me about his concerns, not just Check out of the relationship. I am a very open and honest person. I would much rather have the truth than be “spared” hurting my feelings. Being lied to, or not knowing hurts more! My heart was broken, but this guy’s rejection did not make me question my self worth. I am strong, funny, successful independent and I have herpes. If he had truly cared about me in the first place he would have respected me as a person by disclosing this information. He wouldn’t have cared about the herpes bc he knew I was so much more. I know there is someone out there who uderstands that what I can offer in a relationship outweighs my stigmatized rash ten fold. I was hurt. But this man is not worth crying over. I want others to know that too, if they truly care about you, they won’t run away.

  5. I thank you so much for this! I met a guy a few months ago and of course the topic of sex came up. I would always change the subject because I was not ready to tell him my positive status. Well, I did eventually and he accepted it. He wants to have unprotected sex and while I love him, I do not want to change his life by passing the disease to him. Your article has truly encouraged me but I want to wait before I start having sex with this new guy, especially unprotected sex.

  6. Just got my diagnosis of HSV2 today and after some furious Googling have been happily reading through your back catalog. You are, despite being younger than my youngest brother, so wise about sex in this way and I really appreciate your writing. This blog (and a couple other things, like Herpes Opportunity) have been helping me go through the whole shit-self-loathing-understanding-acceptance process at warp speed. I’m still psyching myself up to tell my recent sex partners, but I’ll do it soon and it’ll be much easier because of you. Thanks.

  7. This article made me cry happy tears. Thank you so much for your encouraging words..
    an STI does not ruin your sex life, it doesn’t need to curtail it, and it doesn’t taint you. My body is mine. It is strong and it is beautiful and it is soft and it is not disgusting. I refuse to be at war with it anymore…I used to think opposite of this

  8. I was just visually diagnosed with herpes yesterday (still waiting for blood test results). You say this doesn’t majorly affect your life much and I’m scared it will ruin mine.
    The outbreak I have right now is very painful with lots of lesion clusters (cannot even sit in a chair) that have multiplied in the past 24hrs since I started using Valtrex and some zinc oxide cream. I’m scared that this is going to be my life now.

    • Hi Alex –

      I was diagnosed with type 2 herpes just last November, genitally and in my throat, and went through a really rough month just suffering through the first outbreak. It was the sickest I’d ever been EVER (mainly due to the throat outbreak, which had a host of severe affects in and of itself), where I also could not sit down, was crying all the time, and was just darn miserable. But once I got on the right meds and allowed myself to release all my pent up emotions about it, I completely recovered.

      It’s alright to be scared right now. It’s a scary new thing with no expiration date and that in itself is difficult to confront psychologically, let alone physically. You’re reading the right article for the former, and here’s a link I love and have bookmarked for the latter: http://www.herpes.org.nz/patient-info/herpes-relationships/ The more you know about it all factually, the easier it will be to predict, track and manage. Most of the fear is in the unknown.

      The first outbreak is always the most severe, and the recurrences (if you ever have any) will be surprisingly mild – like it might take you a few days to realize they’re even happening kind of mild – and spaced maybe a month or two apart (depending on a few things – read the linked article; it says it all better than I can). Personally I’ve only had two recurrences since November, and zero more in my throat, and I barely noticed they were even happening. Mostly I felt unpredictably tired, and a little foggy-brained for about a week.

      Now I take an L-Lysine supplement in the morning, which helps prevent outbreaks (literally $10 at walmart. take L-Argenine too while you’re at it, since your body requires it to properly break down lysine in your stomach) and Valtrex as a daily suppressant. I just added them to my daily vitamin regiment and birth control and have been perfectly fine ever since.

      Realistically, herpes is just a skin condition which pops up from time to time like eczema to cause some personal inconvenience…and that’s it. It will force you to be more conscious of your stress levels and general health, and make you more open and honest with your potential sex partners. But otherwise, it’s just a life event that seems momentous at the time (like getting your period for the first time in a really embarrassing public place), but in retrospect is just another part of life. I really, really promise you’ll be alright. Just read up as much as you can on everything and become friends with your gyno. You’ll figure it out.

      Good luck.

  9. Do you still take daily Valtrex?
    Have you passed the virus on to any of your partners? I was just tested and my doctor thinks it’s a 60% chance that I have it. Still waiting for the lab results. I never had unprotected intercourse so I’m wondering and beating my head, how could this happen? I feel devastated right now. Honestly I feel dirty and I feel why would anyone want me now? I feel so depressed right now. I feel prone to not tell any future partner but take all necessary precautions but I don’t want to be an asshole, like you stated in your article. How could a virus that is related to chicken pox and transmitted so easily have such a horrible stigma.

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  12. Can I email you ? I need some advice and almost a counsel to ask some questions and cheer me on through the horror I am going through right now. Please send me your email so I can contact you. It would mean a lot!!!!

  13. I do not have herpes, but the man I am dating, whom I really really like, just told me that he does have herpes. It was a shock, I can’t lie about that. I know that I have a risk of getting herpes from him, and that is something that I have to weigh against how great of a man and a person is and how happy I was with him before I knew. It must have been so hard to tell me, and cannot imagine having to do it myself…but the possibility of having to potentially do that someday is there if I were to contract herpes from him and the relationship does not work out. Having the virus itself does not scare me, the social stigma it carries with it is what scares me. You all are admirable to me and you are great people.

  14. Thank you for your bravery and candour in writing this article. It will be people like you who break down the stigma surrounding herpes which is after all only a mild skin irritation.

    I was diagnosed over two years ago now and was completely devastated at the time. What I now realise is the stories I told myself back then were all in my head. Mostly that no one would ever want me again. It turns out I was wrong. I have been open with several exes and male friends about this and keep hearing the same message…it would make no difference to us! I’ve also had a serious relationship where we chose not to use condoms.

    I’ve actually not had an outbreak since my initial diagnosis, so not everyone gets recurrences. It does seem vaguely comical to be getting upset about something that, for me, is invisible and has no physical impact on my life.

    It seems that by far the biggest issue with this condition is people’s attitude to it so bravo to you changing that!

  15. Hey,

    I’m a 34 year old women from Holland, i have been diagnosed with herpes 14 years ago, i got it from my ex husband. We at the time did not know you can get genital herpes from HSV-1. The first years after i was diagnosed where hard, i had outbreaks often, they hurt a lot and we also wanted children really bad and i was so scared of passing it on to my children.
    Luckely we got two healthy daughters, i did not have a outbreak at the time i gave birth and they are fine.
    Sadly after 7 years of marriage me and my ex husband broke up, after a while i started dating the man i’m with now, this amazing, understanding, non judgemental man who accepted me just the way i am, and bonuspoints, he already had HSV-1 so i could not give it to him.

    Almost no one else in my surroundings knows i have genital herpes, sometimes i did tell people and then they accused my (ex)husband of cheating on me and i could not convince them otherwise, sometimes they would even tell me i had to have cheated on my (ex)husband. People did not understand you can also get it from a common cold sore.

    But now 14 years later, i’m doing really good, i havent had a outbreak in years, most days i don’t even remember i have it, it’s not a part of my life anymore.

    I just want to thank you for being so open about this, it’s a hard topic to talk about because of all the judgemental opinions.
    I have one friend who i know is dealing with the same, she is still strungling, i think your blog will help her a lot, so again, thanks.

    Greetings

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  17. Thank you for writing this! I am nearly 15 years post diagnosis (received from a partner while using condoms) and have now been condom free with my husband for many years between honest communication, paying attention to my body, an IUD and suppressive meds (otherwise I get outbreaks approx every 2-3 months). It’s a long road, and you explain it perfectly!

  18. I just wanted to say thank you. I’m sure you hear this all the time but from the bottom of my soul, thank you.
    I’m calling my obgyn in the morning to make an appointment to be tested. I’m fairly suspicious that I could have herpes. (Not positive but enough for me to be concerned.) My first thought was: ‘holy gods above, I’ll never be able to have sex again! I’m a hazard!’
    So thank you for making me feel a little less scared if the answer is yes. Thank you. ❤

  19. Can I say I love you without it being weird? 🙂

    It has been over 15 years since I found out I had herpes. It slowed me down a little, but I got educated and got over it. I’ve had 3 long term relationships since then and managed to enjoy being single for a little while in there too. I’m happy to say, I’ve not passed anything on to any partners. The “conversation” never did get easier and I hate that. In the end though, I got through it by learning as much as I could about transmission and how to know when an out break is coming, I took suppression meds with one relationship at his request, but I don’t take them now. Heck! I’ve even managed to get pregnant (clearly protection was not being used in order for that to happen) and have 2 vaginal (it isn’t TMI, it makes a difference) births (after talking with my OB and choosing suppression meds for the last month of the pregnancy).

  20. Wow. I am so thankful I have read this. When my cousin was about 28 she got herpes. It was no big deal, she is a strong woman, she got on with life and married and has adult children. Nearly 5 years ago while in a relationship I got herpes. Aged 50. A devastating blow. Even telling a doctor took all the courage I could muster. The relationship ended about a year later and I have spent the last five years shut down sexually, emotionally. I feel shame, and have no idea how I could begin to tell someone. I haven’t accepted it, or adapted, and do feel ashamed. I feel a glimmer of hope after reading your post and the comments that follow it. Thank you

  21. You are an incredibly strong and brave woman. Thank you for writing this–you have no idea (or maybe you do) how powerful this is for someone like me, a woman who “shouldn’t” have herpes but does, to read. Everything you wrote about, I have felt. All of the fears and anxieties and self-doubts. The way you have handled them, you are nothing less than superwoman. Stay fierce, beautiful woman.

  22. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do is tell a new partner about ‘it’ (can’t even really say it still, even after 4 years!) I felt like I’d never be able to have sex again and had been single since my diagnosis (still will never know how I caught it). But I’ve met someone who is so kind and never judges me. And just likes me for me. After years of being repulsed by myself and so ashamed, I’m finally having a relationship with a fairly normal sex life with a wonderful person. I think if I’d known this might be a possibility, maybe I’d have saved myself some tears. I’m going to try to keep talking to him about it so it’s not a scary thing, just ‘one of those things’. So if anyones reading and feeling shitty or dirty or suicidal, try to remember that life goes on just the same, you’re still the same you, and one day someone will see you for that.

  23. Thank you! I’ve struggled so much with it all… Guilt, depression… Isolation… Further guilt and then alcohol and drug abuse…. For what?!

    A skin irritation…. And a shit load of social slander….

    You’ve definitely given me more strength and I’m so glad I stumbled across this! Feel like laughing off the past 3 years but all I can do is cry in relief that not everyone feels ashamed and I don’t need to anymore. Thank you and for everyone here. I fucking love you x

  24. Very, very brave! I got herpes nearly 30 years ago while at Wes and despite much initial depression, I’d have to say that it’s overall impact on my life has been negligible… awesome of you to alleviate the fears and private terrors of others by writing about it.

  25. Great post! Really interesting to read about what it’s like to live with herpes, there’s so much focus on not getting it, and seemingly not so much advice about what your options are afterwards. Look forward to your future posts 🙂

  26. Your posts help me so much. Every time I read one I feel like I can handle this a little more and everything is going to be okay. Please keep writing. 🙂

  27. “Years ago, I harangued a bro friend for being what I perceived as sexually irresponsible. He admitted to having casual sex with women at his college who he didn’t know very well without using a condom because, as he said, “They’re on the pill.” This is actually my only memory of discussing herpes before my own diagnosis. “That’s how you get herpes,” I scolded him, with more judgment than I’d like to admit. “You need to be more careful.””

    Personally, I’m more likely to lecture young men on always wearing a condom if they are not ready to be a Baby Daddy, because IMO it’s not fair to put ALL the birth control responsibility on the woman’s shoulders AND because BC does fail (just as condoms don’t always protect from Herpes)…. I know, I have a beautiful 4 yr old BC grandchild whose father is still not able to financially support her leaving my daughter to have to put her studies off (or at least slow down how long it will take her to finish her degree) so she can work full time to support herself and her child.

    Beyond that, I totally and completely agree that as long as both partners are well informed and make an ADULT, clear headed, rational CHOICE to forego condoms (whether the risk be pregnancy or STI’s) then there’s certainly nothing wrong with that decision. I tell people all the time: A life well lived ASSUMES risk. There will always be things we do that *could* get us hurt or killed. Just getting into a car puts you at about a 1% risk of injury each year … not much less than the risk of a guy getting Herpes from a woman on anti-virals. Anyone who is into sports has to know that an injury could change the course of their life. If you can’t deal with that, go live in a bubble…. Me? I plan to enjoy every moment that I can of this life … and when I DO get into a relationship, odds are (given the age of my suitors) condoms won’t be part of the package once we have established trust and are ready to “go to the next level”. At 53, I at least don’t have the pregnancy issue to worry about any more!

    Proud of you chica … keep spreading the word…. you are doing a great job 🙂

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