As a single, 24-year-old woman, Jenna has to deal with all the usual awkwardness of dating: the weird set-ups, the butterflies, the disappointment. And then she has to have the talk.
Two years ago, Jenna caught herpes from a partner who told her he was clean, insisting, at one point, that a flare-up she showed him was just heat rash. Now she has outbreaks almost every month, usually around her period or when she’s feeling particularly stressed. Living with herpes as a single woman has forced Jenna to hone her technique for telling potential sexual partners: She is informative, stays calm and never attempts to make them feel sorry for her. Jenna waits several dates to break the news — long enough that she feels comfortable bringing up something so intimate, but well before sex is on the table in any kind of real way.
“It’s terrifying,” she told The Huffington Post. “The possibility of rejection, especially when you have grown to like the other person... it’s just so hard.” About half the time, the conversations go well, Jenna says. The rest of the time, they’re rough.
For all the shame and secrecy that surrounds sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they are incredibly common. The CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new infections occur each year in the United States, half in young people between the ages of 15 and 24. And yet for many single, sexually-active young women with STIs, navigating the dating world can feel, at best, like a delicate dance; at worst, a full-on minefield.
“There’s definitely still a stigma,” said Vanessa Marin, a sex therapist in San Francisco. “There’s more of a stigma when it comes to women and anything sexual, and that definitely applies to STIs as well.”
Jenna knows that stigma all too well. When she was first diagnosed, she stopped dating for a full year. “I was very ashamed, and thought I didn’t deserve to be loved,” she said. The same goes for Maria, 33, who was diagnosed with genital herpes about a year ago and has grappled with feeling like she’s somehow tainted. She doesn’t know who she caught the STI from, but she suspects it was one of the men she slept with in a stretch when she was doing a lot of online dating, after her marriage of seven years fell apart.
“For me, there’s been a lot of shame,” she said. “It makes you feel dirty, and it makes you feel like people are not going to love you because of this.”
When Maria was diagnosed, she was several months into a new-ish relationship. Her boyfriend has been supportive, and she’s been lucky to only have one outbreak since her diagnosis, but she spends more time than she’d like ruminating about what the future holds for her romantic life in light of her STI.
“One thing I constantly struggle with is that I don’t know if this is going to be my last boyfriend. If it is and we do get married, that leads to one conversation, like, ‘Am I going to be able to have a vaginal birth if we have kids?’” she said. “And if it’s not, and I do date again, how do I bring this up? How do I approach this topic, and when? Do you blurt it out on the first date? Do you fall in love and then tell them?”
Yet despite how much inane dating advice there is out there, and how much unsolicited ministering single women are subject to daily, there isn’t much guidance readily available on how to be a woman who has an STI and dates — or even recognition that it’s so damn common.
“There are no absolutes,” Marin said. “One of the main challenges is timing. It’s a personal piece of information, so it’s not something you need to blurt out with in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone, but I think you also don’t want to wait until your clothes are off.”
Be straightforward, Marin generally advises, and try something like, “I want you to know that I have this, and this is what you need to know to keep yourself safe.”
It’s an exhausting conversation to have repeatedly, says Amanda, 34, who’s had genital herpes for almost 10 years, catching it during what she thought was a monogamous marriage. She dates a lot, mostly people she meets online, and often tells prospective dates before they even meet face-to-face.
“I’ve had mixed reactions, from ‘[It’s] no problem at all,’ to rejection,” she said. “Usually, rejection comes from those not well-educated on it.” It’s hard being forced to divulge what Amanda calls her “deepest, darkest secret” so early on in the course of simply trying to figure out if another person is a good fit.
But in that way, having an STI can be a useful litmus test.
“Yes, it’s an awkward conversation to have, but if it’s a conversation you don’t feel comfortable having, that’s probably a good sign that you’re not at the level of comfort you want to have with someone to be intimate with them,” Marin said. “If the person responds in a derogatory way, that’s a good sign it’s a person who doesn’t deserve to be intimate with you.”
Or, as Jenna puts it: “Herpes keeps me away from assholes.”