I’m 21 years young, genderqueer, very sexual, and polyamorous! I have a penis; I also have genital herpes. Is there a best time to tell a partner?
If I have symptoms or have had them recently it’s not much of a conundrum because there’s no choice to be made [besides abstaining]. If I’m totally symptom-free for a period of time, I’ve been told having P-in-V [penis in vagina] while wearing a condom puts the risk of transmission at less than 1 percent. I tell partners this and let them decide what to do. There have been times when I’ve felt I dropped this too early and it was a mood-killer, but I’ve also dropped it when we’re already naked and it felt like maybe the partner could be too deeply aroused to make a well-thought-out decision. Your thoughts?
— On a No-Transmission Mission
Kill “The Mood” dead! This idea that there’s a sexual mood that must be protected at all costs gets in the way of sexual realness. Fear of killing The Mood is cited as the reason why people don’t want to practice consent; why people don’t want to speak up when they’re feeling uncomfortable; and why many avoid safer-sex talks. We’ve been spoon-fed The Mood myth by movies, music, and media — and we’ve swallowed it down along with our humanness, authenticity, and safer-sex practices!
Once The Mood is kissed goodbye, we’ve got a lot more freedom to negotiate your sexual interactions with genital herpes. Herpes is an incurable STI/STD that is spread via contact between the contagious area — mouth or genitals — or broken skin of someone with the virus and someone’s mucous membrane tissue — mouth/genitals. Herpes is always present and transferrable even if the person with the virus isn’t showing any signs of an outbreak. Most people with herpes don’t show symptoms and/or don’t know they have the virus.
It sounds like you already know that herpes is most contagious during an active outbreak. But let’s go over the three main ways to prevent spreading genital herpes anyway:
1.) During an outbreak, don’t have vaginal, anal, or oral sex — even with a condom/barrier. Wait until seven days after sores heals.
2.) Risk of transmission can be greatly reduced by taking prescription anti-herpes medication.
3.) Use condoms/dental dams/gloves between outbreaks to reduce the risk of transmission.
I couldn’t find a source citing the 1 percent factoid you mention, but condoms can cut the risk of transmitting herpes in half. Eight out of 10 people have oral herpes and 4 out of 10 have genital herpes. Herpes is common, incurable, manageable, and, most importantly, part of many people’s sex lives.
Give your partners the information they need to make the best informed decision for themselves. Have this conversation before everyone is turned on as this isn’t the best time to make clear-headed decisions about sexual risk.
Sex involves all kinds of risks. Gender identity, non-monogamy, and STI/STD status all seem like key topics for you and your new partners to talk about so why treat one, STI/STD status, as more dire than the others? We’ve all got “What You Need to Know About Sleeping With Me” topics. Present yours in the same way you’d like people to react to them: with calm and clear statements and boundaries, a plan of action, and freedom of choice for your partners. Here’s some templates to get you thinking:
“So, I’m a squirter. I have towels by the bed. If you don’t want me to ejaculate on your fancy sheets, let me know and I won’t.”
“I’m non-monogamous. I have a boyfriend and he knows where I am and who I’m with. He’s happy to meet you before you and I hook up. If you’re not comfortable with non-monogamy, that’s fine, but we should part ways now.”
“I’ve got genital herpes. I haven’t had an outbreak in X days. If I wear a condom, your risk of transmission is X. Here are some other low-risk sexy options we can enjoy besides intercourse. If this risk is too much for you, I respect that.”
Next step: fill in these “X”s by heading to a gender-friendly clinic like Tapestry Health to get some doc-approved, accurate risk transmission facts.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sexual advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.