Dating When Living With HIV or Herpes

How would you react if the person you are dating told you that they are living with a chronic sexually transmitted and blood-borne infection (STBBI), such as herpes, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the human papillomavirus human (HPV) or hepatitis B? Would you take to your heels or rather try to understand their experience?

Alex*, who lives with HIV, has witnessed all kinds of reactions when disclosing their status to potential partners.

“Sometimes, the discussion ends rather abruptly, and the person never speaks to me again, but I’ve been having increasingly better reactions, because I believe that people are more and more informed,” said Alex.

Alex was 26 when they were first diagnosed, which they compare to “being hit in the face with a shovel.”

“It’s weird to say this but, in the gay community—because I identified as a gay man at the time of my diagnosis—I feel like having HIV was trivialized,” said Alex. “In my mind, I was like, ‘Well if I catch it, I’ll catch it: it won’t be the end of the world.’ So, I often had unprotected sex. But when I was diagnosed, I was shocked. I no longer found it trivial at all.”

Now, at the age of 37, Alex is accepting of their HIV status. Aside from taking antiretroviral drugs every day to control the infection, their life remains relatively unchanged… except when it comes to dating.

On Grindr, the dating app they use the most, Alex displays his HIV status on their profile. When someone writes to them, it’s not uncommon for that person to broach the subject straight away, sometimes even before having said “hello.”

“Sometimes people really lack tact,” said Alex. “I will be asked, for example: ‘Is it dangerous to sleep with you?’ I still try to take it with an open mind, because I tell myself that even if it’s not the best way to ask, it might be the only way that this person will be educated on the topic.”

When Alex meets a potential partner outside of dating apps, they prefer to disclose their HIV status in person or over the phone.

“It’s part of the first bits of information that I will give to the person,” they explained. “Via text, I’ve had rather bad experiences. I almost always get ghosted, but in person or over the phone, things usually go more smoothly.”

“I prefer to talk about it from the very beginning rather than right before having sex, for instance, because I find that when there is a build-up [of sexual tension], it’s a bit awkward to drop a bomb by announcing this,” they added. “It’s not the best timing, in my opinion.”

Over the years, Alex noticed that people seem increasingly open about their HIV status.

“People are more informed about PrEP, and viral loads than they used to be. People will often ask me questions about certain sexual practices, like, ‘Is it dangerous for me to give you oral? Otherwise, they ask me how I caught HIV, if I take medication, what the risks are for them…”

Curiosity is exactly the kind of attitude Alex would like people to adopt when they tell them about their STBBI diagnosis.

“Instead of just walking away and making me feel like I’m a walking virus, I like when people ask me questions and genuinely try to understand,” said Alex. “We are human like everyone else and we live with HIV every day, so we are well positioned to explain what it involves.”

“I thought my sex life was over”

Emma*, Alice*, and Marie-Pier*, all three of whom live with genital herpes, agree with Alex. According to them, benevolence and open-mindedness are key to having a dialogue with someone who tells us they live with a chronic STBBI.

Five years ago, when Emma learned that she had contracted genital herpes, she was convinced that her sex life was over, that “nobody would ever want [her].” When the first man she disclosed her diagnosis to rejected her, she interpreted it as a confirmation of her fears.

Yet, as she continued to date, she met several people who didn’t care about her diagnosis, far from it.

“When I first talked about it to my current partner, he was very receptive,” said the 31-year-old woman. “He was open-minded, and the fact that I had informed myself a lot allowed me to better explain genital herpes to him and reassure him. We looked at the information and discussed it together. He never made me feel inadequate.”

Alice and Marie-Pier had similar experiences. “I met a few people who were scared, but they weren’t very serious relationships,” said Alice. “Otherwise, most of the time, people would ask me questions and it was fine.”

“I am currently in a romantic relationship and, at the beginning, my partner needed a bit of time to inform himself, and I gave him that time,” she continued. “But he didn’t stigmatize me. And today, when I experience symptoms, I tell him and we simply abstain from having sex for a few days.”

“Be responsible and have fun”

All three women believe that the negative reactions to their herpes disclosures were mainly due to a lack of education about herpes, hence the importance of talking about it and of “playing down” its gravity. They also recommend that people who have been diagnosed with herpes be well informed about the virus to be able to clearly explain its ins and outs to potential partners.

“I consulted a sexologist to talk about how to disclose my STBBI,” mentioned Marie-Pier. “I understand that the timing and wording is important. It’s also not that big of a deal: herpes doesn’t define you, and it’s not a death sentence for your sex life.”

“When you tell someone, you can also take the opportunity to cite a few facts, such as that 67% of the population has herpes; that outside of outbreaks, the risk of transmission is low; that if you’re experiencing symptoms or feel that an outbreak is coming, you’ll tell your partner and take antiviral medication as soon as possible; and that you are well equipped to reduce the risk of transmission,” she adds.

With regards to disclosure, Marie-Pier recommends not waiting until you are “in the heat of the moment” to broach the subject.

“Once, I was with a guy and, when I felt that we were about to sleep together, I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I have herpes.’ The guy froze! [laughs] It’s better to mention it before,if you can, to give the person time to educate themselves on the subject and make an informed decision.”

“And if this person chooses to stop seeing you, you shouldn’t take it personally: they’re not rejecting you. It has nothing to do with who you are,” she reminded.

“A word of advice I’d give to people with herpes: be responsible and have fun. There are people who are put off by it, but many others don’t care and some even think it’s awesome that you’re being responsible and that you have plenty of tools and knowledge to help reduce transmission,” concluded Marie-Pier.

*Fictitious names