I’ve recently begun a relationship with a man who has herpes. It’s unclear if it’s HSV-1 or -2 or both. He has scheduled an appointment with his doctor. I’ve been tested and am negative for that, hepatitis, and all other STDs.
It’s important for me to know all the types of physical and sexual contact that do and don’t have a high herpes transmission possibility. His hands, feet, chest? Interested in ideas and where they fall on a scale from very safe, to very risky.
— Risky Business
Ella Dawson has herpes so good that she’s been dubbed the “Queen of Herpes” by the internet. Eight out of 10 people have oral herpes and 1 out of 6 have genital herpes, according to Planned Parenthood. So, to be the queen of all of those people is pretty damn impressive.
Dawson was crowned herpes royalty in May 2016 when she gave an incredible TEDxTalk about living as a millennial with this highly stigmatized sexual health status. One article she’s written since is, “Why Should I Date Someone with Herpes.”
In it she writes, “To me [this question] feels like you’re asking me to justify my value. The facts on herpes are actually quite clear when you do research online: herpes transmission is not that easy, particularly when both parties make an effort to use condoms, antivirals, dental dams, and so forth.“ I know couples who have gone years without transmitting by being honest with each other about when they are having outbreaks. The person most likely to give you herpes is the person who doesn’t know they have it in the first place. On the other hand, herpes itself honestly isn’t that big of a deal for most of us.”
In your question, Risky, I hear a lot of fear, which may be more harmful than helpful — to you and to your partner. If I had to worry, for example, about when and how my body grazes against my lover’s chest when we have sex, the Delightful Dirty would become a long, perilous experience of paranoia and micromanagement.
Meaning, your first step to becoming sexually active with this man is to reduce the fear and stigma you may be holding about herpes. Digging into Dawson’s work is a great place to start.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important for you to understand the risks of sexual activity with this new guy. I would want to know the same. But you’re also not the only one taking risks in this relationship with herpes nor is herpes the only risk involved in sex.
Herpes is common, manageable and, most importantly, part of many people’s sex lives. Herpes is an incurable STI/STD spread via contact between the contagious area (mouth or genitals), broken skin, or viral fluid of someone with the virus and someone else’s mucous membrane tissue (mouth/genitals). Most people with herpes don’t show symptoms and/or don’t know they have the virus.
Generally, oral or penetrative sex with a penis without a condom involves a high risk of transmission of herpes. Using condoms reduces these risks though herpes can exist outside of the condom’s protected range. Your partner being extra diligent about hand-washing during an outbreak will ensure that the viral fluid from the sores on his mouth and/or genitals/groin isn’t (uncommonly) present on other body parts like chest and feet.
Herpes is most contagious during an active outbreak, but is always present and transferrable outside of one. There are three main ways you can prevent spreading genital herpes:
During an outbreak, don’t have vaginal, anal, or oral sex — even with a condom/barrier. Wait until seven days after sores heals.
Risk of transmission can be greatly reduced by his taking prescription anti-herpes medication.
Use condoms/dental dams/gloves between outbreaks to reduce the risk of transmission. Though condoms do not cover the entire surface where herpes may be present, studies show that using condoms can cut herpes transmission risk in half.
Finally, dig into the wealth of info about herpes to help reduce risk and stigma on Ella Dawson’s website, ellacydawson.wordpress.com, in Erika Moen’s comics at ohjoysextoy.com/herpes, and with HRC.org’s online Safer Sex Manual that offers inclusive, sex-act-specific risk-management statistics and tools.
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure-positive sex writer and educator living in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with sex advice, resources, and workshops at yanatallonhicks.com.