Having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) shouldn't be a point of shame, and it also crucially doesn’t mean the demise of your sex life. In fact, one of the main purposes of STI Awareness Month, which happens each April, and other similar public campaigns, is to talk about them and help reduce stigmas or fears you may have. Of course, it is great to avoid contracting an STI, but given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in five people in the United States has one and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates over 1 million new cases of STIs daily, focusing on navigating a healthy and fulfilling sex life should you have or get one is a worthy endeavor.
Genital herpes is one of the most common STIs, with an estimated 572,000 new cases of it each year in the U.S. Types of symptoms and treatments correspond to the type of herpes—oral or genital—that has been contracted. The main difference between the two is the area of the body that is affected. Oral herpes, HSV-1, also known as cold sores, is usually self-diagnosable and can be spread through saliva; unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex; and skin-to-skin contact like kissing, sharing beverages, handshakes, or hugs. It is treatable with over the counter medicines; however, once oral herpes are contracted, they can reoccur.
Genital herpes, HSV-2, is an STI that can cause genital pain, itching, and sores, and it can only be spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex; and from parent to child during pregnancy, labor, or nursing. Though the virus lies dormant in the body, symptoms can flare up at any moment—particularly during high-stress periods. It’s advised to treat outbreaks with medication, tell your sexual partner(s), and refrain from any type of sex or genital contact.
You can have a great sex life with genital herpes (or a partner with genital herpes), so long as you are informed about how to care for yourself, use protection, and communicate with your partner(s).
The good news is that regardless of the type, herpes is less likely to be transmissible when you are in remission and on medication. You simply need to avoid sex if you feel an outbreak starting, or are in the midst of one. During these times, communication with your partners is key, and I encourage you to lean on other forms of intimacy to connect with your partner(s) during this period.
Again, you can have a great sex life with genital herpes (or a partner with genital herpes), so long as you are informed about how to care for yourself, use protection, and communicate with your partner(s). In fact, these realities are true for sex with anyone—with or without an STI.
How to communicate with your partner(s) about having genital herpes
The ideal time to talk to a partner about your genital herpes, or any STI for that matter, is before having sex. A key to establishing healthy emotional intimacy in any relationship is sharing pertinent information that helps you establish trust, build a good sexual communication foundation, and allow your partner(s) to give consent to sex beforehand.
Keep in mind that it is your responsibility to disclose information to your sexual partner(s) before intimate moments, but doing so should not be scary or create any type of negative judgment. Here are the questions I recommend asking your partner to help guide you through this conversation in an empowering way:
1. Telling a partner you have herpes or another STI
“I recently got tested for STIs and wanted to share my results with you. Would you like to schedule time for us to talk about it together?”
2. Suggesting getting tested before a new sexual relationship
“I really like where this is going. I’d like for both of us to get tested and share our results with each other before things progress any further. What do you think?”
3. Asking a partner about their sexual health
“I want to check in about our health and sex life. I can share the last time I was tested and results. Can you share yours with me as well?”
Be sure to communicate to your partner(s) if you’re experiencing symptoms of any kind so that both of you can take action toward treatment. During outbreaks, seek treatment from a medical professional and engage in other forms of intimacy like cuddling, body massages, or incorporating a sex toy to stimulate your partner(s). Latex barrier methods like condoms and dental dams are a great way to help prevent likelihood of transmission as well.
How to keep herpes from impacting your sexual wellness goals
Regardless of whether you have an STI or not, consider what intimacy and sexual wellness goals you have for yourself. Everyone has the right to great intimacy and fulfilling partnership(s), so consider what you want to explore, leave behind, or accomplish with your solo or partnered sessions.
If you have herpes or another STI, make sure you feel informed and ready to have conversations with partner(s) about it. Regarding talking to a clinician, all of us should be checking in with our health-care providers about our sexual health on a regular basis, so that is not unique to someone with herpes.
Ultimately, I have experienced that people with STIs tend to have better sexual-communication skills than those without. This is perhaps because the conversations around sexual health with partners sparks more dialogue about feelings, intimacy, and other sex topics. Overall, I want those with herpes to know that it’s common, manageable, and not a barrier to a fulfilling sex life.
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