A few years ago, back when I was regularly trolling OKCupid for dates, I received a message from a potential paramour. He'd been scanning through the survey answers associated with my profile, and one response in particular gave him pause: when asked whether I'd consider dating someone with herpes, I'd responded no.
For me, the question had been something I'd quickly checked off back when I was 21 and first joining OKCupid (and, I should note, far more ignorant about STIs). It wasn't some carefully considered stance on sexual transmitted infections, or grand statement about herpes. For him, however, it was a potential deal breaker: As you've probably figured out by now, my suitor was a member of that vast group of sexually active adults who've been infected with herpes.
The internet was supposed to be transformative for people with incurable, but highly preventable, STIs like herpes simplex virus (HSV) who wanted to date while being open about their status. That OKCupid question was, in theory, a way to suss out potential partners with positive feelings about the HSV+. Sites like Positive Singles and MPWH (that's "Meet People With Herpes") offered themselves up as ways to, well, meet people with herpes.
There's no question that these sites (which have even spawned their own Tinder-like apps) are a fantastic demonstration of how innovative online dating platforms can be. But even as they bring together a number of people living with STIs, they don't seem to do much to improve general education about living with herpes and other STIs. And as a result, people going online in search of connection and support often end up feeling stigmatized, isolated, and more alone than ever.
So what does help? Not surprisingly, education, honesty, and openness.
When Ellie* was diagnosed with herpes in her senior year of college, she was convinced the infection was a "death sentence" for her dating life. And in the beginning, that seemed to be the case. "I was being turned down by men who had every intention of sleeping with me until they found out," Ellie told me over email.
Hoping to improve her prospects, or at least connect with people in a similar position, Ellie turned to the internet. But despite the promise of community and support, she found that STI-focused dating sites just made her feel worse. "It felt like a dating site for pariahs," she noted—and one with bad design, shitty UI, and and very few members, many of whom are too ashamed of their diagnosis to actually post a picture on their profile.
And since these sites' only criterion for joining was an STI diagnosis, members didn't really have that much in common aside from their diagnosis, which many seemed obsessed by. Ellie noted that "it was more of a group therapy site than a dating site. Nothing about it was sexy."
More troublingly, the sites seemed less likely to unite people with STIs than to divide them into cliques. As Ellie explained, "There was this shitty STD hierarchy," which ranked curable STIs above herpes, and HSV-1 (formerly known as "oral herpes") above HSV-2 (formerly known as "genital herpes"), both of which were considered "better" than HIV. "I just felt like it was used to make people who felt bad about their illness feel better by putting other people down."
Ellie's not alone in her assessment of STI dating sites as a barren, depressing wasteland. Ann*, who contracted herpes the first time she had sex, noted that "with [roughly] 20 percent of the population having HSV2 there should be way more faces to click on." This points to another issue with these sites: whether because of ignorance, stigma, or some combination of the two, many people living with herpes either don't know about, or won't admit to, their infection, further fueling the cycle of stigma, ignorance, and shame.
This is not to say herpes condemns you to a depressing, dateless existence. It's just that corralling people with STIs into a corner of the internet, while making no attempt to improve education around the reality of what an STI diagnosis actually means, doesn't really do much to change the situation.
MPWH might offer community in the form of blogs and forums, but since much of the content is user-generated, the site's tone is set by panicked people who are convinced they're dating outcasts—rather than, say, a calm, knowledgeable expert there to educate and reassure the site's members that everything is okay. (MPWH staff do contribute posts to the site, but they can be poorly written and full of misspellings, hardly an encouraging sign for site members.)
As a result, these sites merely serve to segregate people who have herpes from people who don't (or don't admit it), further cementing the erroneous idea that a common viral infection somehow makes a person permanently unfuckable—when, in fact, a combination of medication, condoms, and avoiding sex during outbreaks can make sex with herpes fairly safe (certainly much safer than sex with someone who blithely assumes they're STI-free).
So what does help? Not surprisingly, education, honesty, and openness about the topic of herpes. Despite their initial fears, both Ellie and Ann have gone on to have awesome sex with amazing people—none of whom they found by explicitly seeking out other people with herpes.
That's the other problem with sites like MPWH: they assume that people with STIs need a specialized dating site, when plenty HSV+ folk are able to find love (or just some good old fashion fucking) the same way everyone else does. (Tinder, duh.)
(It's worth noting that it can take some time to get to the point where you're comfortable dating in the wild with herpes: Ellie found that dating European men, who in her experience are less burdened by cultural baggage around herpes, helped her regain her confidence. Ann worked through her shame in therapy and is now "really open IRL about my diagnosis which I think has really helped my friends who also get diagnosed.")
Fundamentally, just treating herpes as the annoying, but manageable, infection that it is can have a huge impact with potential partners. "I noticed if I am not freaking out when I disclose to partners they do not freak out," Ann remarked. "I have found even people who [say they won't date someone with herpes], once they know me and have more information… they will change to a yes, because I am fly and cool as hell."
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.