Getting Sexy with Herpes
Sex with Herpes
“Getting Sexy with Herpes,” sounds like an absurd title to some, but the reality is that herpes is real. It is very common and there is no reason not to get sexy. About 8 in 10 adults have oral herpes (HSV-1) and 1 in 4 adults have genital herpes (HSV-2). Oral herpes can be transmitted both orally and through genital contact. It is more prevalent for people with vulvas due to the skin being thinner and more delicate than those with penises.
According to the CDC, around 750,000 to a million people are infected annually. Many people have no symptoms and even more don’t know they have it. This sexually transmitted infection (STI) is so harmless and common that it is not typically tested in STI panels unless you specifically ask. Many healthcare providers will even deter from testing when requested, unless there are actual physical signs. These include a cluster of blistery sores around the mouth, vulva, penis, or anus.
Despite the commonality and minimal harm of this infection, it is one of the most stigmatized and talked about of all STIs. Let’s begin by debunking a few harmful myths.
Myth: Herpes is a sign of someone’s promiscuity or poor hygiene.
Fact: Herpes can be transmitted from one person to another despite personal hygiene practices or number of partners. It only takes skin to skin contact. Penetrative sex is not necessary to obtain the virus.
Myth: Condoms prevent herpes.
Fact: Condoms can reduce transmission, but do not entirely remove the risk.
Myth: Herpes cannot be transmitted unless there is an active lesion.
Fact: Herpes looks differently on everyone, and many people transfer the infection without active lesions.
Myth: Herpes causes cancer.
Fact: Herpes does not cause cancer. Many people get HSV confused with the human papilloma virus (HPV) which also causes warts. HPV, not HSV, is associated with a variety of cancers, including cervical cancer.
Myth: You can’t have great sex with herpes.
Fact: You can and should have an amazing sex life despite your herpes status.
If you have herpes, or your partner has herpes, there is no difference in activities one partner can participate in over the other. If you want to swing from the chandeliers or Netflix and Chill, go ahead. Herpes is not a virus that has to impact your ability to perform sexually. The key is proper disclosure and using best practices for prevention.
Talking about herpes with a partner can be really scary. With all of the stigma around herpes, the fear of rejection is real. Disclosure around STI status, regardless if you are a carrier of an STI, should be a normal conversation with your sexual partners.
Some argue it should be said on a first date and some say later. The timing of disclosure is personal, and best practices are typically to have the conversation before your first sexual encounter and not while someone has “sex brain,” which is when an individual is very aroused and is moving toward a sexual activity. In many ways, both partners are not in their clearest state of mind and “sex brain” minimizes someone’s ability to give full consent.
Disclosure conversations can be hard, but with consistent practice the shame and stigma associated with it lessens for you and your partners. Good communication about STIs is about having respect for your sexual health and those you want to entertain. If someone can’t handle your truth, they can’t handle you.
Condoms alone do not prevent the transmission of herpes, but it doesn’t mean they are not beneficial in reducing risk. According to Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, a clinical professor at the University of Washington and leader in STD prevention and research, there are three key methods to prevent transmission:
1. Avoid sex when an overt outbreak is present
2. Wear condoms
3. Take medications (Many doctors prescribe Valacyclovir)
Doing one out of three isn’t the most effective. Using two methods greatly decreases risk. Doing all three decreases risk of transmission exponentially.
Herpes doesn’t have to define someone’s sexual health or worth as a human being. It should be looked at no differently than any other skin condition such as psoriasis or eczema, or communal infections such as the flu or chicken pox. We are all human and have potential to be carriers or receivers of varying infection. The key is to practice universal precautions and have a level of compassion for those who may be a carrier. We live in a very sex negative society, so anything related to sex has an added layer of shame. The more we normalize sex and STIs being a part of sexual experience, the quicker we can move from a shame-based mindset to a pleasure-based mindset. We all are deserving of sexual pleasure and connection.
Renée BurwellLCSW, MPA, AASECT Certified Sex Therapist
She holds a Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology from Spelman College, a Master of Social Work and Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California, a Post Graduate Certificate in Sex Therapy and Education from the University of Michigan, and is AASECT certified as a sex therapist.