Anna will gladly explain why having herpes isn’t the end of the world. But she didn’t always feel that way.
It took years for her, founder of The STD Project, which encourages awareness and acceptance of various sexually
transmitted diseases, and spokesperson for Positive Singles, a dating site for people with STDs, to come to terms
with the diagnosis she got at age 16.
“My mom says the entire way home from my appointment, I cried and said no one would ever love me, no one would
ever want me, and I’d never get married,” she explains. Positive Singles
When she was diagnosed with herpes almost three years ago, Wanda, a social media editor in Chicago, had a similar
reaction. “I mostly thought, ‘I’m going to die alone, no one’s going to date me ever again,” she tells SELF.
Although herpes is one of the most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases, it’s shrouded in stigma. The infection,
which is caused by the herpes simplex 1 and herpes simplex 2 viruses and passed via skin-to-skin contact, can show
up as a cluster of sores on the mouth area or genitals. It can also be asymptomatic, so most people with herpes
don’t know they have it, which is a large part of the reason why it’s so prevalent. Around two-thirds of people
worldwide under age 50 have herpes simplex 1, according to the World Health Organization, and around one in every
six Americans between ages 14 and 49 has genital herpes, usually caused by herpes simplex 2, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Both eventually moved past their initial panic and saw herpes for what it is: an infection many people have that
happens to usually get passed through sexual contact. But all the self-acceptance in the world doesn’t erase the
fact that a herpes diagnosis creates ripple effects of shame and social isolation, and the fallout is especially
pronounced when it comes to your dating life.
Dating with herpes means telling potential partners, which can be scary. But it’s necessary.
“It’s good to have the conversation because there is a potential risk of transmission,” Cherrell Triplett, M.D.,
an ob/gyn who practices at Southside OBGYN and Franciscan Alliance in Indianapolis, Indiana, tells SELF. Although
telling someone you’re interested in can be intimidating, there are different ways to do it, and you might find one
easier than the others.
In the past, Carlson would put the herpes conversation on the table quickly. “I don’t like wasting my time or
getting my heart broken, so I think it’s a self-defense thing to almost always tell the guy on the first date,” she
explains. “If they want to cut and run, I haven’t invested too much of myself in it.”
But in the future, she thinks she’ll take her time disclosing as long as she gets it done before engaging in
sexual activities that would put the other person at risk. “On a first date with this wonderful guy, I told him,
and he couldn’t handle it,” she says. “I really wonder if it would have changed things to wait until we had
On the flip side, she’s also dated “quite a few guys who didn’t care at all” even though she told them ASAP.
Davis usually holds off on disclosing to potential sexual partners that she has herpes until she’s known them for a
bit. “I’ve always waited a little while before telling people, basically until I thought it was going somewhere,”
Davis says. “This isn’t everyone’s experience, but when I started dating with herpes, I found out none of my
Although she sees that it’s intriguing to potentially avoid attachment—and thus heartbreak—by telling someone right
out the gate, she makes an excellent point in favor of taking your time: “Nobody tells you all of the things about
themselves that you usually don’t find out for a bit, like they have really bad credit or they’re a horrible cook,
until you get to know each other.” Of course, it’s different with a health condition you can pass to someone else,
but it’s worth noting.
How to tell your partner is up to you, but people with the virus say it helps to be direct, transparent, and
Although they tell potential partners at different points in the relationship, Carlson and Davis’ actual disclosure
process is pretty similar. They both say it can be nerve-racking, but a few things help: sitting the person down in
a place that’s comfortable for them, trying not to be too emotional, starting off with something like, “Hey,
there’s something I need to talk to you about,” and bringing a wealth of knowledge to the conversation.
“I always try to be calm and not too clinical but explain that I have done the research,” Carlson says. Davis
agrees, saying she fills people in on key details, like how herpes is transmitted, how transmission can be
prevented, whether she’s taking medication that keeps the virus from multiplying, thus making it less likely to
transmit, and how to find more information about the STD.
To top it all off, she also tells them they don’t have to make a decision about whether to continue seeing her—or
even respond—right away. “If they have any questions, we can chat. But I usually peace out so they have their space
to chew on it,” she says.
STD-centered dating sites give people with herpes and other infections a way to skip awkward disclosures
Davis says the number one question they get on The STD Project is about how to tell a new partner. On sites like
Positive Singles and HMates, users are expected to be open about their diagnoses, but because they know everyone
else there has an STD, too, it removes a huge barrier—and the question of whether the information will send a
potential partner packing.
“It’s a great way to see you’re still the same interesting, sexy, desirable person,” Davis says. “It helps rebuild
the confidence that gets hammered down when you get that diagnosis.” (She is a spokesperson for Positive Singles,
but she’s never used any STD-specific dating site.)
Carlson, who got back into dating via this kind of site after her diagnosis, agrees. “After I felt more
comfortable with myself and the situation, I went on Bumble and started dating people in the more conventional
way,” she says.
Some people put an incognito message in their profiles on general dating sites, writing out 437737—it spells
“herpes” on a dial pad—in their profiles. Others just write, “I have herpes” in their profiles, and Davis says her
friends in this camp still have plenty of people knocking on their online-dating doors.
So, if you have herpes, don’t worry that your love life is over. It’s not.
You can have great sex, find love, and also cut down on the chance of passing herpes along to your partner,
Triplett says. Just keep these few things in mind:
It’s possible to transmit herpes even if you don’t currently have cold sores or a genital outbreak. “The virus
exhibits something called asymptomatic shedding,” Triplett says. “Because of that, we strongly recommend you always
use condoms to protect yourself.” You can also use dental dams, little latex sheets you place over the vaginal area
during oral sex. Positive Singles
Suppressive therapy medications, like Valtrex, can lessen your chances of getting an outbreak or transmitting
the virus. They won’t make it impossible, but combined with barrier methods, it’s much less likely, Triplett
The right person won’t view it as a deal-breaker. “Once you do tell them, if they want to be with you and accept
you completely, you can work through it,” Triplett says.