Katie has finally figured out how to tell her partners about her herpes diagnosis.
The 29-year-old learned how to disclose her diagnosis before sex—a health-forward version of dirty talk, if you will—through trial and error. She’s attempted telling men straight up, right before sex, in the middle of dates, and right after she meets them. She says some men have been understanding, while others are downright mean.
Katie has had two partners freak out in the morning—after Katie had disclosed her diagnosis and had sex with them. “They were like, ‘You told me when I was already [horny],’” Katie said. “That was difficult because it doesn’t feel good to push that conversation before it’s even obvious that you’re going to have sex.”
That’s when Katie, who’s only using her first name to protect her identity, decided to be “crazy upfront” about herpes.
While dog-sitting for friends in New York one weekend, she started drawing and writing about herpes in a frenzy, ultimately creating a 411 pamphlet and comic strip about the infection. As soon as Katie finished her design, she rushed to make 10 copies.
Katie’s illustrations, “Here’s What You Need to Know About Herpes Before Sleeping with Me,” include cartoon depictions of penises, vaginas, and the herpes virus when seen under a microscope. She also lists important herpes statistics—women are twice as likely as men to get it, for example—and information about condoms and antiviral medications that prevent transmission.
Now, Katie just passes the pamphlet to potential paramours when it’s time to dish herpes details, usually as soon as she senses sex is on the horizon. “It’s kind of nutty but people seem sort of charmed by it,” Katie said. “It’s also kind of silly, so it lightens the situation.”
Katie first learned she has herpes on her birthday three years ago. The 29-year-old had been casually sleeping with a guy on and off for about six months. Towards the end, the pair stopped using protection. About a week after one of their final hook-ups, Katie started experiencing symptoms of herpes, clinically known as herpes simplex virus (HSV).
There are two strains of HSV, conveniently referred to as HSV-1, which typically lives in and around the mouth, and HSV-2, which usually affects genitals and is more severe (both strains can transmit to and from genitals and lips). In the U.S., about one in eight people between the ages of 14 and 49 are believed to have HSV-2, while half of the population likely has HSV-1. More and more people have genital herpes caused by HSV-1, with researchers estimating that about 140 million people below the age of 50 have genital HSV-1 across Europe and the Americas. While incurable, the infection really only affects aesthetics: it triggers painful or itchy bumps, sores, blisters, or rashes when active.
Initially, Katie assumed she had a UTI or the flu (fevers and flu symptoms typically coincide with a person’s initial herpes flare up). But her doctor asked to see her, conducted a few tests, and diagnosed Katie with HSV-2.
“I was a wreck at first,” Katie said. “My doctor was so sweet. She was like, ‘Listen to me, it feels like a big deal, but it’s not a big deal.’”
Katie’s doctor is right; there’s a good chance you, reader, have HSV. As many as one in three adults have the virus, and 80 percent of carriers are oblivious to the fact that they have it—mainly because symptoms often play out mildly. But stigma continues to plague people who know they have the STI, especially when it’s time to disclose the condition to sexual partners.
A guy who Katie ended up dating for six months got his pamphlet at a bar, in public.
“He looked through it and he looked a little embarrassed to be holding this thing with, like, drawings of genitals at the bar,” Katie said with a giggle. “He was amused and handed it back and was very chill about it.”
The pair is no longer together, so Katie will undoubtedly meet new partners. She says she will keep using her pamphlets to kickstart inevitable herpes talks—and she’s even thinking of expanding her enterprise.
“I’ve thought about making more for other STIs that are common, and putting them on Etsy for super cheap so people can download them,” Katie said.
And unlike pamphlets you find at a local medical clinic, Katie’s include jokes and relatable anecdotes.
“The clinic ones are scary. They make you think of medical posters with a stock photo of a distressed woman or something,” Katie said. “It’s cool to use pamphlets that are fun.”
Keeping sex fun, even when you know you have an STI, is kind of the point.
“The stigma is so much worse than the reality,” Katie said. “The only thing herpes really did is teach me how to have safer sex.”
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