What Catching Herpes Taught Me About Straight Men Are
About a year ago, I caught genital herpes from a monogamous male partner. It was a pretty fucked up situation, honestly, though at first I didn’t freak out about it. My doctor told me it was very common, that some people are asymptomatic carriers, and he’d probably had it for a while. I figured, well, that kind of sucks, but shit happens.
Our sex life kind of died for a while, because we were both dealing with getting outbreaks. One thing that was a little bit weird, is he used to be an asymptomatic carrier, but then started getting outbreaks around the time I did, but I was told (again, by medical professionals) that this can happen as well. So, I figured well, ok then, I guess that’s normal.
Then, a few months later, he caught gonorrhea and admitted he’d been cheating on me. As someone not deeply invested in monogamy, I tried to explore if we could work it out by transitioning to a non monogamous relationship, but it proved too hard. I’d caught him lying about other things, and eventually when I pressed him on why he cheated, he claimed it was that because we’d been having less sex after I’d caught herpes (reminder: he was the person I caught herpes from.)
To this day, I still don’t know if he was cheating on me the whole time or not; I guess I never will. But, I couldn’t tolerate being with someone who used a health condition I was experiencing as a justification for cheating, so I ended it. And then, well, I didn’t date for 6 months because honestly, that was traumatic as hell. Not the herpes, but the lying, and never knowing what was real, and what was fake.
But, eventually I came around and started dating again — except, for the first time in my life, I was dating with HSV-2. I’m a pretty open person, so I figured whatever, I’ll just put it in my dating profile and it was fine. People still messaged me (often other people with HSV-2, but not always) and, maybe it wasn’t as many people as before? But, it was enough to feel like, well, there are people out there, and if I want to find a partner I probably can.
Still… for a while, I wasn’t really ready to actually date. I mean, in a way all’s well that ends well, but something that really freaked me out about my partner cheating on me was HIV. Thing is, my ex was cheating on me with men (some kinds of MSM sex are higher risk for HIV transmission) and when I was like “were you at least using PrEP?” he was like “what’s PrEP?” and that scared the hell out of me. (If you don’t know what PrEP is, please learn; it’s a pill you can take regularly that drastically reduces your chance of getting HIV. I am shocked at how many people don’t know this exists.)
With things like PrEP and modern HIV meds, dating people with HIV is actually quite safe. If you treat HIV effectively, there’s basically a zero percent chance of passing it on (though, I’m not sure if it’s always possible to treat it this well.) Personally, I would be open to dating someone with HIV — but, I would probably take PrEP to protect myself.
Of course, because my monogamous partner was cheating on me, I didn’t know I was potentially at risk of HIV. So, I wasn't on PrEP. His lying to me about his sexual activity prevented me from protecting myself. Additionally, because he was having anonymous-type encounters, he wasn’t having conversations with his partners about their HIV status, so he couldn’t be sure that if he hooked up with someone with HIV that person would have well contained HIV or not.
It’s actually kind of rare to pass on HIV nowadays, but these kind of closeted, high risk situations are exactly how it happens. (Both of us took a series of HIV tests around this time and they all came back negative, so I think we got lucky.) And, it was so frustrating, because with all my knowledge, education, all my open mindedness and non-shaming approach to sexuality, despite all of that, shitty shit could still happen to me, simply because I had chosen to trust someone who was lying.
I really didn’t understand; why would my monogamous partner cheat on me when I was willing to open the relationship? Why would my queer partner hide his sexual orientation from me, when I myself am bisexual? Why why why? And, more importantly, what could I do to make sure this won’t happen again?
And the answer is nothing. I can do nothing to save myself from this, because we live in a fucked up world that shames people for their sexual desires. Sometimes, people ask me if I’m mad at my ex, and the answer is no, not really. I am sad, deeply deeply sad, and traumatized, but I also see him as the victim of patriarchy, of a world that shames those who are attracted to the masculine. Sometimes people ask me if I think he’s gay, and again the answer is no. I think, if he’d simply been gay he would have just drifted into the gay male world already; he’s a victim of a world that legitimizes monosexuality over more fluid sexualities.
Part of the reason why this happened, is that he wasn’t a clean and easily defined person who could be put in a box. And, I have deep sympathy for that. But, the repercussions of his behavior really, really hurt.
Of course, that’s nothing new to me. I’ve been sexually assaulted twice and I am deeply aware how the decisions of others can seriously harm me, often in irreversible in long term ways. I know, if I keep dating people, I might get raped again. I might catch another STD. I might get pregnant in a world that refuses to recognize my personhood, in a world that may one day choose to let me die to save a fetus that isn’t even alive yet.
And it’s still worth dating people.
In a way, the saddest things I’ve been through are also the source of my most optimistic belief, that people are worth it. Even if they’re fucked up, even though they lie and do terrible things, even though it’s absolutely, guaranteed they will hurt you badly, it’s worth it to keep trying to connect because one of the most beautiful things you witness in this world is the inner workings of another’s consciousness. You don’t need to be rich, you don’t need to travel the world, you just need to take a closer look at the people who surround you. Not that you should stay with people who are abusing you or treating you badly, of course. Like, I definitely dumped my ex because he was unable to tell me the truth, but that it’s worth giving people a chance and not closing yourself off to everyone around you. Because people are worth it.
So, with that revelation, I decided to start dating again. For reasons that are a bit outside the scope of this piece, I decided I was maybe interested in more of a D/s kind of dynamic, and vaginal sex wasn’t an activity that’s super important to me. I’m open to it, but I’m not really enthused about it — and, the BDSM community seems a bit more open to connections like that.
Anyway, so I get back on the dating apps and specify some of this (I’m the D in the D/s btw) and I don’t really bother mentioning that I have herpes anymore because I figure many of the things I’m looking to do aren’t going to transmit it anyway. And… a lot of men who match with me who seem to expect that we’re going to have vaginal sex. If someone communicates to me that they’re expecting vaginal sex, I basically say, “well, I’m open to that, but btw, I have genital herpes.”
At which point, many of them ghost or disconnect. I guess, I hadn’t realized how many people that was a veto point for, in part, because when I put up front that I’m HSV-2 positive in my profile, I just don’t match with people who would veto it. So, I guess I’ll add it back in, but I was kind of legitimately surprised.
Before I had HSV, I actually dated a woman with genital herpes (who I did not catch it from — like I said, my partner who transmitted it was an asymptomatic man and “didn’t know” he had it) and I would be open to dating people with other things like HIV. So, honestly, it’s just weird to me to veto someone over an STD. (It’s also worth pointing out, that most STD transmissions come from people who don’t know or aren’t disclosing what they have, so refusing to date people with STDs isn’t going to protect you from catching one.)
What I ultimately realized was, straight men demand to have vaginal sex, but are completely unwilling to shoulder any personal risk around the activity. Which… really makes me not want to have vaginal sex with them.
It’s also kind of funny, because in my area, something like 15% of straight people have HSV-2. That probably translates to 10% of men and 20% of women because women catch herpes more than men, so if you’re a straight guy who has sex with 5 women who “don’t” have HSV-2, probably actually one of them did.
But, I never really bother trying to educate people around stuff like this when it comes to dating (in my blog, yes, in my dating convos no.) Honestly, there are enough people to date if I disclose up front there’s no reason try try to talk someone into it, and if someone is so risk averse they’re unwilling to consider dating someone with an STD, they’re not a good match for me ideologically anyway.
It does, however, make me consider mental state of straight men vs myself. Sex is supposedly very important to straight men, yet they are willing to risk so little to have it. Which makes me wonder, is it really that important to them?
I’m willing to risk all the shit that I am to have sex, because I think connecting with people is important, because I think it is worth it. Seems like straight men just see sex as a fun activity, but if it might actually cost them something, then they nope out. However, the straight women who have sex with them? They are willing to tolerate risk, because straight sex is inherently risky for women. And you know, you might think that this is going to end up being a “blahh, patriarchy men suck!” type post. And, you know, it sort of is.
But, on some level, I think the straight men are actually the ones who are missing out. It implies to me, they don’t really understand the value of connecting with people, they just view sex as some of fun diversion, or status symbol or something.
And, perhaps most shatteringly, many of them don’t really see me as a person worth connecting with, or getting to know if I can’t be used as a risk-free pleasure dispenser. It kind of makes me reflect back to before I had herpes, and how many of the people I had sex with must have seen me and… well, I’m sad to have an STD, and I’m sad at the profound shattering of trust that happened when I caught it. But, I’m not sad that men like that are perhaps now a thing of my past.