My fiancé and I didn’t think much of it when he got a cold sore. Everyone gets cold sores, and well, if I caught one it was no big deal, right? Wrong. That cold sore went away, the site remained contagious, he ate me out at some point, spreading the virus to my vagina and then from there it spread to my anus during anal sex.
I didn’t know that herpes hurt. I might as well have renamed my anus the ring of fire. Pooping was like the pain I imagine giving birth feels like. I went to the STI clinic because I knew something was wrong.
When they examined me, the nurse knew right away that it was herpes. They sent a sample away for testing to see what type it was. Herpes type 1 is responsible for most cold sores and is known as oral herpes. Type 2 means that you have genital herpes, though both kinds can cause you to have sores on your genitals. The difference between the types has to do with which area of the body they infect, but it’s possible for them to cause sores in other places.
A week later I got a phone call confirming that I had herpes type 1. Suddenly, I became an STI positive person. I was terrified. I found myself overwhelmed by the situation. I didn’t want to give up having sex.
As a queer person who’s polyamorous, having herpes was going to not only affect having sex with my fiancé, but the way I dated other people. There would be stigma to overcome and precautions that needed to be taken. When it came to guys, I’ve always been careful, using condoms or even female condoms when I had HPV to reduce skin-to-skin contact. But it’s only after being with my fiancé for years that we’ve gone the route of unprotected sex and birth control. I’ve always seen female safe sex as too bothersome, and in my few encounters, I haven’t employed safer sex practices. A dental dam? What’s that?! Too complicated, that’s for sure.
I felt like I had two choices: Resign myself to monogamy and not worry about safer sex, or get educated on safer sex practices and herpes in general. Limiting myself to only ever having sex with one person wasn’t something I wanted, so I went with the second option. It’s not surprising that I’m unfamiliar with how to have safe sex with other women, as queer sexual education and sex education in general is seriously lacking. I was anxious about taking more steps to ensure safe sex, but was willing to learn so that I could still have fulfilling sex.
I coped with this news by being radically open about what I was going through on social media. Being open about having herpes was really liberating, and I got a lot of support as well as some advice for dealing with it – like using Abreva. Even though it’s meant to treat oral herpes on the mouth, it was suggested that I could use the medication to help deal with the discomfort of my sores. As well, I was told to rinse the sores with warm water after using the bathroom, as even just urinating caused them to sting. I also found taking a warm bath to be soothing.
Since then, the sores have cleared up, and I have had two outbreaks so far. I will always be at risk to have another outbreak, especially when my immune system is strained. The common cold now comes with more risk for me. The doctor told me the first outbreak is always the worst – blessed be it will never be that bad again.
As much as those outbreaks were a pain in the ass, I’ve learned that having herpes isn’t the end of the world. It’s very possible I may never have another outbreak again. After doing some research, I’m feeling more confident in dating again. I’ve learned that with no symptoms, the chances of spreading it are only 4-10%, and antivirals reduce the risk even further. With barriers and antiviral meds, the chance of a partner catching it from me from a years’ worth of sex is as low as 1-2%. It’s recommended to avoid sex altogether during an outbreak, which generally only last a week or so.
Herpes, especially type 1, is incredibly common. In fact, generally doctors won’t test for it because of this reason. There’s a good chance you have herpes type 1, even if you don’t display symptoms. The difference with me is that I know I have it and can be upfront about taking precautions – which we should be taking anyway when it comes to casual sex, such as using condoms and talking about our STI status. Given that I caught my herpes from my fiancé, we have continued to have unprotected sex as we both have herpes now and it’s not a big deal for us.
I’ve found that the stigma towards herpes does get in the way of connecting with new people, though I have had a few promising leads with new connections. I know that the right person for me will be open to using protection and happy that I’m taking measures to protect them.
Ultimately, I want the people who want to have sex with me to be comfortable and well informed before we take off our pants together.
Published in the Summer 2018 issue. Get the issue in digital or print here.