Love and sex therapist Lyndsey Lyons contracted genital herpes when she was 16 years old. Ever since, she’s committed herself entirely to fighting the stigma attached to STIs — in both her private and professional lives, as both a therapist and a woman in the dating scene.
“You can get an infection anywhere … But get one on your genitals, and suddenly you’re a disgusting person,” Lyons tells us. “It’s seen as evidence that you had reckless sex with a ton of random people — and that somehow means you’re dirty and you’re an inferior person.”
In fact, the shame and isolation surrounding an STD diagnosis are often worse than the symptoms themselves. It leads people to stay silent when they contract an STD, which leads everyone around them to be oblivious of how common they really are. It prevents people from getting tested, because ignorance is bliss, and they genuinely don’t want to know if they’re infected. It leads those who know they’re infected to sometimes withhold their status from partners, out of fear they’ll be abandoned or resented.
But this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy isn’t benefitting anyone. That’s why Lyons is “coming out” about her herpes — to call bullshit on the overblown stigma of this common disease. She’s been dating and fucking with herpes for all of her adult life, and no, she doesn’t have to limit her romantic prospects to a herpes dating site. Odds are, any Tinder or Bumble match has an STI, too.
“Instead of assuming that people don’t have an STI, it’s more realistic to assume that they do,” Lyons says. After all, about 80 percent of adults in the U.S. contract an STI at some point in their life, according to the American Sexual Health Organization. Herpes is among the most prevalent. About 1 in 2 people ages 14-49 in the U.S. has oral herpes, and about 1 in 8 people has genital herpes.
The vast majority of people who have it, have no idea. The CDC estimates that nearly 90 percent of those infected with the virus that causes genital herpes have never been diagnosed. STD tests typically don’t test for herpes unless you specifically ask for it. And a lot of people won’t.
Because sex and dating do change after a herpes diagnosis. Although the experience is different for everyone, there is always the dreaded disclosure — the moment that you have to tell a partner about your status.
“When I was on dating apps, I’d tell them on our 1st or 2nd date if I saw potential for something more,” Lyons says. “I don’t want to wait until I have feelings for someone and then it scares them off. I have to protect my own emotional safety.”
Almost every single time, her partner has been accepting. Except … “There was one time, when I was 20, that someone told me they didn’t want to date me.” This was the only time someone set a hard limit.
In the past, Lyons assumed she deserved negative reactions. But nowadays, after working through her shame and damaged self-worth, disclosing her status has become an early indicator of who she wants to invite into her life. If their response is anything but warm and empathetic, she’s better off not investing any more emotional energy into them.
Once you’ve found an accepting partner, sex with herpes doesn’t change much at all. As long as you don’t do the deed during an outbreak, the chances of giving it to your partner are slim.
In both long-term relationships and casual encounters, it’s a calculated risk. Lyons has had partners for years where they had unprotected sex and never passed on the virus.
With casual sex, sometimes there are circumstances where the “disclosure” conversation is less available. “There’s a part of me that feels guilty for the times that I haven’t shared, but in the end my takeaway is it’s not solely my responsibility,” Lyons says. “Don’t expect someone with an STI to be responsible for your own sexual health. Take initiative and bring up the conversation.”
As a therapist, Lyons counsels people who are struggling with the shame of an STD diagnosis, just like she used to. She’ll bring her own experience into their sessions to let clients know they’re not alone.
Lyons also speaks out against jokes that come at another’s expense. Tell her, “you can have some of my water, I promise I don’t have herpes,” and she’ll call you out. She speaks out against use of the word “clean” to describe not having an STI. “If you’re clean, then what does that make me?” she asks.
She sees herpes as an opportunity to be a voice for those who have had to deal with the shame in silence. Ultimately, speaking up is the only way to someday eliminate the shame, eliminate the silence, and eliminate the stigma.