Herpes, like true love, is forever. It's also far more common than we're willing to admit. The STI, one of very few that never go away, comes in the form of two viruses: herpes simplex type 1 and type 2. One out of every six people aged 14 to 49 currently have genital herpes, one out of every four adults have it, and there are approximately one million new cases each year.
Living with herpes is doable. Dating with herpes is another story. Herpes quickly becomes that annoying friend that invited themselves into a threesome but just kind of lingers and gets in the way. Sometimes the stigma is so difficult that people with herpes will often give up on dating altogether. PositiveSingles.com, one of a few websites geared for people with herpes, HPV, and other STIs, is trying to change that. It's a guaranteed way to meet someone without the impending doom feeling of having to disclose your STI over a sushi dinner. With a site like this, that conversation never has to happen at all.
I spoke with James* (30) and Shannon* (28), a married couple who met on PositiveSingles two years ago about dating with herpes, and what we can do to help eradicate the stigma.
VICE: When did you both realize you had herpes?
James: I actually got herpes from an ex-girlfriend during my graduate school career, I was probably around 27 or 28 at the time.
Shannon: I was 18 when I found out that I had herpes. Which is ridiculous considering the fact that I am almost 28 now and I've had seven sexual partners my whole life. I was with my ex for almost six years, and we both found out that we had it at the same time. I stayed with him for a long time because I thought nobody else is going to want me.
Did herpes change dating for you?
James: I ended up giving it to somebody else and it made me reevaluate how I was going to handle my dating life. Before I got herpes, I wasn't really looking to settle down. I was enjoying the single life, and I wasn't too serious about relationships. After I contracted it, it made me second guess what I wanted out of life. I decided that I wanted a more meaningful relationship.
Shannon: I can remember going on a date with a guy and I couldn't even enjoy my time with him because all I could think about was having this in the back of my mind. And I couldn't get anywhere else in the relationship because I couldn't get that out of my head, and I wasn't ready to have that talk yet. It really could ruin potential relationships if you can't be open.
Because we already knew the most intimate secret about each other, it was really easy to open up.
How did you find each other on PositiveSingles?
James: I had been on PositiveSingles for about six or seven months. I had a few dates but nothing serious ever happened. I was thinking that the selection on there was very limited. A lot of people don't put their pictures on there, for various reasons obviously, but I got an email from Shannon and she was reaching out. She didn't have a picture, but she explained her situation and we started talking.
Shannon: I was doing all of this research on how easily herpes is transmitted, as much information as I could find out. During my search, PositiveSingles popped up. I decided I would give the site a try. I was on the site for probably less than a month. And that's when I met James.
We added each other on Facebook and talked a little bit back and forth for a few months, before we finally did meet in person. It was amazing. We were supposed to meet in a public place on a Saturday, and that completely did not happen, I was working two jobs at the time, and I got home at 11 and we just decided that he was going to go ahead and come over that night.
James: And really it was, for lack of a better word, love at first sight. It went really quick from then on. We spent that entire weekend together.
Shannon: Because we already knew the most intimate secret about each other, it was really easy to open up and I felt that I had nothing to hide with him. When we finally met, he ended up proposing to me seven weeks later. We got married 13 weeks after we met. We're approaching our two-year anniversary. I knew the weekend that I met him, I said, "That's the man I'm gonna marry."
How have you dealt with the stigma surrounding herpes?
James: I'm a lot more open and I've noticed since I've been much more open, other people will say that they've got it too. I remember when I first told my parents, my mom told me she's had it for 30 years. There are so many people that have it, and there are so many people that have it and don't even know they have it.
Shannon: I was very secretive about it, and the only people who knew were my immediate family. I didn't tell my parents for a very long time. When I met James's parents for the first time, apparently right after I met them, they were asking each other "Well, I wonder if he's told her yet?" They didn't know how we had met.
I remember when I first told my parents, my mom told me she's had it for 30 years.
Does herpes affect your lives today?
James: Herpes does not affect me whatsoever. I barely ever get an outbreak, neither does my wife. It doesn't even come into my mind because I'm married to a woman that knows everything about me. The only time it was a problem was when I was trying to date.
Shannon: I've had it for almost ten years now, and the longer you have it the less active it is and you really forget it's there. I don't really take any medicine for it, I just take it as needed. Maybe once or twice a year I'll take medicine for a few days. I'd forget that I had it, except when it came to getting pregnant and dating. That's when it wouldn't leave my mind.
What advice do you have for people with herpes looking for someone right now?
James: You're not the only one. I can't stress that enough. PositiveSingles worked for me. There are support groups too. There are plenty of people out there that are going through similar situations.
Shannon: The site is a really great icebreaker. If it wasn't for that site, I don't know where I'd be right now. Definitely don't feel like it's the end of your world. Even if you're not on the site for dating purposes, you can still communicate with other people. I had a man from Georgia just reach out to console me, so it's a great community where you can just reach out to people that are in the same situation. Some people make such a big deal out of it, and it's completely unnecessary. People aren't educated enough, they don't realize how common this is. One in four. That's a lot of people.
* Names have been changed.