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Individuals living with an incurable infection deserve love and pleasure just as much as those who don't have one.

Tiffany Curtis
Mar 01, 2021 @ 6:27 pm
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Not everyone's comfortable talking about their sex life, but knowing what goes on in other people's bedrooms can help us all feel more inspired, curious, and validated in our own experiences. In HG's monthly column Sex IRL, we'll talk to real people about their sexual adventures and get as frank as possible.

The first time I told a sexual partner that I have genital herpes, they said, "Okay, so how do we do this?" Those may not have been their exact words, but they didn't hang up the phone and ghost me, shame me, or ask me questions that sometimes reflect internalized stigma when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), like "Do you know who gave it to you?"

I appreciated that my disclosure was largely uneventful and that we were able to openly discuss our safer sex options and go on to have really good sex. But one positive experience hasn't erased the fact that I carry my own internalized stigma. And while I'm more at peace with it than I was when I was diagnosed, I still fear how others will view me because of my status.

It's enough to carry around internal and external shame, as dating has never been easy. And it doesn't help that research on STIs often fails to acknowledge queer women and other marginalized genders. Cisgender women who have sex with other cis-women and transgender women are considered to be "special populations" by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And on top of their exclusionary language and erasure of other gender identities, the CDC offers little data on STI transmission within these groups, which makes it hard to know your risk of transmission and to share that info with potential sexual partners.

However, the latest CDC data, which looks at statistics from 2018, estimates that one in five people in the U.S. had an STI. For STIs to be so common, traditional sex education—which is often fear-based—still reinforces the stigma around STIs leading to the use of words like "clean" and "dirty" when discussing STI-free and STI+ people and also leads to misinformation about STI transmission. Fear-based sex ed has also failed to affirm that people living with an incurable STI (herpes, HIV, hepatitis B, and HPV), deserve love and pleasure just as much as those who are STI-free. These programs also haven't equipped many of us to properly advocate for ourselves when undergoing STI-testing.

Despite the stigma and fear that surrounds us, STI+ people still date and can have full and exciting sex lives, so I spoke to a few STI+ folks about how they navigate sex and dating and how STI-free people can be more affirming of our experiences. Here's what they shared.

"I was convinced no one would be able to see past my status, and I wasn't sure I'd ever have sex again."

"Initially, dating with an STI was super scary! I was convinced no one would be able to see past my status, and I wasn't even sure I'd ever have sex again. I absorbed so much of the shame and stigma that gets projected toward those who are STI+, I couldn't see any other possible outcome beyond a life of isolation and celibacy.

"When I did start dating again, I found myself settling for partners who I wouldn't have otherwise been interested in and staying in unhealthy relationships longer than I should have, because I thought no one would be okay with me having herpes. I've actually never experienced rejection or a cruel reaction from a partner after disclosing my status (the general public was a different story altogether), and at 38, I can say with certainty that the fear, shame, and stigma I internalized was the only thing getting in the way of me being able to date, form healthy romantic relationships, and have a pleasurable sex life.

"The initial conversation was by far the most challenging part of dating with an STI, because disclosure, safer sex, and sexual health discussions are simply not modeled for us anywhere. We don't have practical and relevant examples in our culture from which to pull ideas about how to have those kinds of conversations with partners, and so we are left navigating very sensitive and intimate discussions without any guidance or support—which means that most of the time, those conversations simply don't happen at all.

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"When I was deep in my personal shame spiral, I felt like I didn't deserve pleasure. I was always hyper-focused on other people and trying to 'wow' them with my ability to perform [sex]. It wasn't until years later that I realized how much my STI diagnosis stripped me of my autonomy and how unnecessary that experience was, considering how common it is to contract an STI and how it shouldn't have an impact on our self-worth at all—although it often does.

"I'd love to see STI-free people expand their awareness [of STIs] and accept that, although not ideal, STIs are common and they have nothing to do with someone's character or value. People need to stop making jokes about STIs, have regular conversations about sexual health with their partners, and recognize that many people you know and love have an STI. I wish I would have known that an STI didn't have to change my sex life and that the lived experience of someone who has an STI is different than what people think it is. I wish I would have known that in theory, most people will be averse to the thought of having a partner with an STI, but in practice, most people who disclose their status to a new partner receive really positive and affirming responses, so it doesn't end up limiting their relationships or their sexual pleasure in any way."

Jenelle Marie Pierce, 38, currently married and expecting her first child.

"I'm still deserving of love and pleasure despite having an STI and if someone is going to reject me for that, then fuck them."

"I got [herpes simplex] HSV-2 from my ex and thought it was no big deal since I was in a relationship and thought they were my forever person. Then when we broke up, my status hit me hard, and I had to regain my entire sense of self, separate from my STI diagnosis (thanks to all the stigma and fear-based sex ed I received). After my breakup, it took five months of [going to] weekly therapy sessions, following sex-positive accounts, and re-educating myself about sex and pleasure to finally overcome the stigma associated with being STI+ so I can feel comfortable dating again.

"Since I held off for so long, dating is still really new to me, especially dating during the pandemic. But so far, I'm taking my time and choosing my partners very carefully to avoid entering any toxic situations that could set me back in my healing. I'm also currently talking to/seeing somebody, which feels really exciting after being so closed off for so long.

"I take dating way more seriously now; I used to just date and hook up with whoever. My sexual health and mental health are way more important to me now. I've set much stronger boundaries, I'm more selective about who I give my energy to, I spend more time seeing if I can trust someone before being vulnerable with them, and I'm more open about mutually sharing STI test results. I express what my needs are, and what it's going to take for me/us to have a healthier relationship. Disclosing my status has been the hardest thing to navigate while dating.

"I still experience shame around being STI+ so when it's time to disclose, I fear rejection. I'm grateful that the folks I've disclosed to were super understanding and brushed it off like it wasn't a big deal. I'm still deserving of love and pleasure despite having an STI and if someone is going to reject me for that, then fuck them—I don't want to date them or have sex with them anyway.

"I didn't realize how attached I was to sex and how integral my sex life was to my identity. My ex didn't want to have sex anymore after my diagnosis because he was filled with his own shame around it and giving it to me, which was so hard. I felt super sexually frustrated and undesirable for a really long time up until very recently and it's almost been a year since my diagnosis. I didn't want to masturbate, have sex, or even consider having a relationship for a while. But now after having so much therapy, a lot of healing, successful disclosure experiences, being able to masturbate again, and having sex with great people who accept me for me (including my STI status), I'm now a lot more comfortable with my sexuality and relationship with pleasure. I follow a ton of sex-positive, STI-focused Instagram accounts that make me feel empowered and normal and I repeat positive affirmations to myself on a regular basis, like 'Despite having an STI, I still love and accept myself.'

"I think STI-free individuals can be more affirming of us by being open to learning about the reality of STIs and what it's like to live with them. I also think it's time to stop making jokes about STIs; it's insensitive and only perpetuates the stigma more. I wish someone had told me when I was diagnosed that it would get easier; that I would feel pleasure and enjoy sex again; and that I still deserve love, respect, and acceptance. I also wish I'd known that there would be a hell of a lot of support available along the way when I'm in need."

— Anonymous, 28, single.

"Shame around sex is definitely a white supremacist/colonial invention and it underlies the shame that's heaped onto those of us who are 'deviant' in any way."

"When I first found out I had HSV-1 (herpes), I definitely experienced a lot of fear and shame around it. I specifically felt concerned about navigating and brushing up against the stigma of having herpes and of having a lifelong STI, while trying to meet and date new people. At the time, I had two partners who were supportive and who didn't add to those feelings of shame, and I wasn't ready to date anyone new because I was still in the NRE (new relationship energy) phase with my current nesting partner. This allowed me to have some time to really process my status and to heal some of the shame that I felt about it.

"The first time I began dating someone new, some of those feelings came flooding back. I felt like I needed to figure out the right time to disclose, and I was scared, so I avoided things getting too hot. Eventually, I realized I needed to be honest about my STI; recognize that being STI+ doesn't define me or my value; and if this person had a problem with it, then they weren't meant for me. It actually went pretty well! She listened with warmth and didn't make me feel ashamed or awkward (at least not more awkward than I already felt) and we talked about safety in a way that felt joyful and considerate. I feel really lucky that that was my first experience disclosing to a new partner. And knowing that it's possible to share this tender part of myself and be received with love by new people has made it feel more clear to me that I deserve that kind of non-judgmental reaction—and that these conversations can feel juicy and mutual, rather than scary and condemning. 

"I don't think my views on dating have changed that much. I'm still polyamorous, and still usually prefer sex with people I've spent time with and started to build a relationship with (though casual sex every once in a while can be fun). I think the main thing that has changed is recognizing that I can't have spontaneous sex with someone anymore without having a more intentional conversation ahead of time about safety and being STI+, and that's something that I want to do anyway.

"The hardest thing [about dating] has been feeling afraid of what someone's reaction might be. I may have done internal work to dispel shame around my own STI, but not everyone has done that and some people still carry stigma about STIs with them. I get anxious that someone might react negatively or have a change of opinion about me when I disclose. I can't control people's reactions to me, but what has made this fear easier is being more open and honest publicly about being STI+. The more I am up front about it, the more I can talk about it without shame with friends and in the community with others, and the more I feel that this isn't something I need to hide. The right partner for me will be understanding and not judgmental about me being STI+, and they will approach safety as a mutual conversation and journey, rather than a burden.

"Herpes has definitely cock-blocked me on numerous occasions. But seriously, I think it has been hard at times to feel when pleasure with myself or with partners is off the table because of an outbreak. There have definitely been whole weeks of sexual possibility lost to the pain, and before I started medication, I was having constant outbreaks. I'm currently on valacyclovir, an anti-viral medication I take every day to prevent further outbreaks and help stop the transmission of the virus. This has helped so much in terms of my relationship to sexual pleasure. It has given me so much time back and a renewed appreciation for the pleasure I can experience.

"I also think having herpes has helped me be more in tune with my body. Noticing subtle shifts that could mean the early signs of an outbreak has helped me to notice other shifts in how my body feels and respond to them. Now because of the combination of antivirals keeping the outbreaks away and taking testosterone amping up my libido, I'm really hyped to explore my body and share pleasure with my partner. 

"I feel most affirmed when conversations about STIs are normalized! It feels affirming when I can talk to my friends about my outbreak or whatever else is going on without shame and when I can be in community spaces where engaging with STIs feels natural. I feel affirmed when safer-sex conversations can feel fun and juicy, like an invitation for us to share, receive each other, and figure out what feels best for us, rather than a scary conversation where you want to know that I'm 'clean.'  The word 'clean' makes it seem like having an STI is 'dirty' and that's just some violent bullshit. I think STI-free individuals can be more affirming by being more open to having conversations about STIs, educating themselves around STIs and safety, asking questions about STI status rather than about cleanliness, and doing some internal work to question what stigma they may be holding onto or perpetuating. Shame around sex is definitely a white supremacist/colonial invention and it underlies the shame that's heaped onto those of us who are 'deviant' in any way, and people should question that.

"I wish someone had told me that being STI+ isn't the end of the world or of my dating life—and that it's possible to find partners who will love and cherish me and be totally into having hot AF sexual experiences, with an STI."

— Willow, 26, polyamorous and in a long-term relationship with their nesting partner.

"In those early days, I felt a lot of shame about my STI status and believed it had rendered me undesirable."

"I was 20 when I contracted genital herpes back in the late 1990s. It essentially shut down a lengthy period of active promiscuity (that I look back on without shame). In my experience, the landscape of dating has shifted significantly over the years. In those early days, I felt a lot of shame about my STI status and believed it had rendered me undesirable. I moved away from going to nightclubs and bars to connect with people and spent more time in online chat rooms to get the sexual validation I wanted from men. I knew I didn't want to date anybody without telling them about my status, but I was terrified of the rejection I'd face once I did. The first time I told someone that I was sexually interested in that I have herpes, I'd built it up so much before blurting it out that he was expecting me to tell him I had a secret husband or something. Ironically, his response was 'Oh? Is that it? I don't care about that.' It was never that easy again. My views on dating have changed in that I am much more careful with my emotions. I went from hypersexual to almost demisexual in my approach to sex and dating because of the fear associated with the rejection, where I no longer feel a strong attraction to people until the emotional connection (including their acceptance of my status) has been established.

"I don't think [being STI+] has impacted my relationship with sexual pleasure. I think I'm a hedonist by nature. The seeking of pleasure of any kind has always been what drives me.

"The conversation about STIs has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years. I see a lot more vocal and visible advocates for releasing the stigma associated with STIs—and it is especially meaningful when someone who isn't STI+ steps in to educate those who continue to perpetuate the stigma. Some very simple things that STI-free individuals can do to be more affirming include thinking about how they will react when someone discloses a positive STI status. And if they are dating someone who is STI+, find new ways to affirm and engage in their pleasure. In my experience, people over 30 appear to have a lot more life experience and a lot less fear surrounding dating someone with an STI. In my 20s, I was rejected a lot because most of the guys I was dating were also in their 20s. Once I started dating again in my 30s, I found that there was a definite cut-off—those over 30 had far fewer hangups about STIs." 

— Phoebe, 42, partnered.