By Harris O’Malley
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
Three years ago, I met a girl that I’m going to call J, and she quickly became the closest friend I’ve ever had. We have the same hobbies, same taste in music, and same sense of humor, and I’ve never had as much fun with anyone as I’ve had with her. To this day I still don’t know what I would do without this girl in my life.
When we first met, J had recently been cheated on and dumped by her boyfriend of four years. She was going through a lot of heartbreak and self esteem issues at that time, so she was kind of sleeping around. A few months after we met, she was diagnosed with genital herpes. My heart broke for her when she told me, and I was as supportive as I could be. I remember her telling me that when she got the news, her doctor told her she had to disclose this to every partner before having sex with them.
I vividly remember the first time after her diagnosis that she hooked up with another guy. She had texted me saying she was going to his house to hang out. I said something like, “Oh, so if you guys end up having sex, you’re gonna have to have the conversation?” And she said, “I’m not going to have sex with him.”
A few hours later, she texted me saying, “That was the worst sex I’ve ever had.” I asked, “How did the conversation go?” She never texted me back.
Ever since then, I’ve been painfully aware of her sleeping with many other guys without disclosing to them. I’ve tried talking to her about it multiple times over the years, but she doesn’t seem to take it seriously. I think her way of coping with it is pretending she doesn’t have it. It has always bothered me, but lately it’s been eating me alive.
She just got into a serious relationship for the first time since her ex of four years. His name is D. I don’t know him super well, but I’ve met him a few times, and he seems like a really nice guy with a good head on his shoulders. She’s been sleeping with him without any form of protection for the last 3 months, and he has no idea he could easily get a lifelong infection from her.
A few weeks ago, they somehow got on the topic of STDs. He mentioned that a friend of his has herpes, and then he literally told her that if she had herpes and didn’t tell him, he would dump her as soon as he found out. She was upset when telling me about this and acted like she knew she had to tell him and was going to figure out the best way and time to do so. I told her that sooner is better than later and that she should not have sex with him again until she tells him, because he would be even more upset if she continued having sex with him after that conversation. She agreed and said she would.
A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything. I also knew she had spent the night at his house at least once during that week. I reached out to her again with a long text message listing all of the consequences of not telling him. She said she had thought of all of that and that she would tell him as soon as she was ready.
Another week went by and she texted me saying something about having sex with him in her car. I was super upset and could not believe she was telling me that after everything I had expressed to her.
I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I am an accessory to a crime. What is my obligation in this situation? I feel awful standing by silently while he is in danger of contracting this incurable virus. I also do not want to lose this friendship. Please don’t tell me to end my friendship. If I tell him myself, my friendship will end. If I threaten to tell him myself, my friendship will end. What should I do?
This is the sort of question that I really dislike, because it’s the sort of thing that causes people to get up in arms in ways that aren’t called for by the actual issue. This is in no small part because sexually transmitted infections are incredibly divisive and polarizing… which is the problem.
Before we get to your friend, I want to take a moment to talk about the language you use. You mention that your heart broke for her when she got her diagnosis, talk about being an accessory to a crime and refer to her friend as being “in danger”. All of that is the very definition of “not helping”; it spreads the stigma of having an STI and ends up making people less willing to be up front with the diagnosis. The shame and stigma makes it more likely that people are going to end up being exposed to the virus.
When we treat herpes as something horrifying and shameful, then people who are living with the virus are less likely to be upfront about it and less likely to get tested. Not getting tested or being diagnosed means that they’re not going to follow best practices to reduce the risk of exposure to their future sex partners. And just as importantly, it ends up causing greater strife among couples, because that lack of discussion means that a lot of folks remain ignorant about the realities of herpes.
As a general rule, I’m of the opinion that herpes isn’t that big of a deal; medically speaking, it’s a skin condition. An incredibly inconvenient and painful skin condition, but a skin condition none the less. However the stigma surrounding herpes is far higher than the actual medical consequences. Chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea have far larger consequences, yet those infections don’t have the stigma that comes with a diagnosis of HSV-2. And yet, for all the stigma, herpes is incredibly common; it’s estimated that 1 in 6 people in the US between the ages of 14 and 49 have herpes. Most people who are infected have no idea that they even have it.
The vast majority of people who carry the virus have one outbreak, and then never have a second. Even then, they may not notice the outbreak, or not realize that it’s herpes. People who discover they’ve been exposed to HSV-2 often assume that it’s their current partner who exposed them. In reality, it is just as likely that they’re the ones who did the exposing… and that they caught the virus from previous partners and had no idea. As a result we get caught up in a cycle of shame and anger, with people being shamed for catching a common virus… and who may not even realize they have it in the first place. After all, most STI screenings don’t include tests for HSV-2, and the most common tests are wildly inaccurate, with a false positive rate as high as 50%.
But because the stigma is so outsized versus the actual impact, we end up with people who’s reactions are disproportionate to the impact of the actual infection. Folks, for example, like your friend. And unfortunately, her behavior — which, make no mistake, is incredibly irresponsible — is only going to serve to increase and spread the stigma of having herpes. To start with, it sounds like she may not be doing the best practices needed for reducing the potential to spread the virus. A combination of antiviral medication like Valtrex and careful use of condoms keeps the likelihood of spreading the disease to a minimum. But if your friend is having unplanned hook-ups, she may be playing a little fast and loose with protection or dating guys who will try their damnedest to not use condoms. That’s a great way to end up infecting someone and running the risk of having a pissed off ex-hook-up rolling back into the picture with an axe to grind.
And that’s without getting into potential legal ramifications. While most states don’t have laws surrounding disclosure of herpes, it’s entirely possible that she could end up being sued for pain, suffering and humiliation. The virus itself may not be a big deal, but it wouldn’t take much for a lawyer to make her life a living hell, even if they didn’t ultimately prevail in court.
Buy then there’s the situation with his current partner. His attitude is the product of the stigma surrounding herpes infections, which is bad enough, but her behavior justifies his feelings on the subject. By lying by omission, she runs the risk of his contracting the virus if they decide to forgo condoms and be fluid-bonded, which is going to be a much bigger issue than if she’d been up front with him. If she’d been straight with him from the beginning, then maybe he would have ended things… or maybe he would’ve been understanding and they could decide how they wanted to make this relationship work. Hell, it may have prompted him to go and get tested himself, where he very well might find that he’d had the virus all this time and had no idea.
But her not telling him is fundamentally unfair. While herpes isn’t a big deal and is incredibly common, that doesn’t mean that folks who don’t have it are wrong for wanting to avoid it. People have the right to decide to make an informed decision as to whether they want to risk exposure or not. Her keeping her diagnosis a secret robs him of the opportunity for him to decide whether or not he was willing to accept the risks.
That having been said: you’re not helping things either. Your treating this as an unspeakable crime is only going to make your friend less likely to want to talk about it with her partners. Freaking out at someone is a great way to make them decide that they’d be better off keeping their diagnosis as a deep, dark and horrific secret instead of learning to accept it as a simple fact about who they are. After all, if you are getting this worked up about it, imagine how her boyfriend might feel.
And then there’s the fact that, at the end of the day, this is ultimately between your friend and her partner; you aren’t part of this equation. They’re both adults and — the state of sex-ed in this country aside — that means accepting the risks that come with having a sexual relationship. If he decides to not use condoms, then he’s tacitly accepting the possibilities of an undesirable result, whether that’s an STI or pregnancy.
So if you want to help your friend, then the best thing you can do is for both of you to get educated on the realities of living and dating with herpes. There’re a number of resources out there that can be incredibly helpful; I’d suggest starting with Ella Dawson’s TED Talk about living with herpes and then moving to resources like Planned Parenthood. The more that you learn, the less you’ll be letting ignorance drive your fears. Knowledge is what can help drive away the stigma of having herpes and help your friend conduct her life with honesty and integrity.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I’m a college senior at a large midwestern university. Back around the time of Halloween I was invited to a party on a Saturday by a friend of mine. I got there and drank a little bit and hung out when this guy came over and said “my friend thinks you’re cute. I wanna introduce you to her.” Next thing I know he’s calling over this girl and we start talking. We talked for close to 2 hours and we seemed to hit it off pretty well, we exchanged numbers and I offered to take her for an airplane ride (I have my pilot’s license) to which she enthusiastically agreed.
After I left the party she started texting me gushing about how she thought I was so nice and cute and that she couldn’t wait to see me again. We texted back and forth a little bit and she suggested we grab lunch that upcoming week. We set up a date and then didn’t text each other until the day of the date confirming that it was still on. Anyway, we had lunch and talked, only she seemed a little less outgoing, which I totally expected, since I have a good suspicion that a lot her bubbly personality that night was the alcohol talking. She wasn’t “Pam Beesley at the Dundies” drunk, just more outgoing, touching my arm and standing really close to me and such. I also definitely felt much more awkward talking to her at lunch than I did at the party. I felt like I missed a lot of opportunities to find out more about her. She also seemed to not remember a few things about the party, which was awkward for me since I assumed she would have known what I was talking about at certain points in the conversation.
After lunch we walked together to class, since my class was in the building next to hers (she’s a really fast walker). As we said goodbye I suggested we find out when we could fly later to which she kind of had a blank look on her face and then responded “okay” before heading inside.
I texted her later that evening asking when she’d be available to fly if she still wanted to, to which she responded a while later saying that she couldn’t at all next week since she had this big organic chemistry exam she had to study for all week (she’s a sophomore neuroscience major). I responded that that was fine and said we could set it up some other time. I did tell her I wanted to hang out with her again sometime though. She said she’d like that, but it’d have to be after that week of her exam.
So finally I get to my question. We haven’t texted in 2 days (my fault I know), and I’m getting a little nervous. I don’t want her to forget about me and lose momentum, but I also don’t want to be a distraction for her. How do I keep things rolling until I can see her again in 7 days? Any advice you can give would be appreciated.
So there’re a couple of things to focus on here.
The first is the change in her attitude between the party and afterwards. One of the things people tend to get wrong about booze is that it’s not the Jekyll and Hyde formula, it’s truth serum. When you’re drunk, you’re disinhibited and more likely to act in ways you might refrain from later. It’s quite possible that your friend is a little shy and reserved normally and the booze turned down the volume on her shyness and so she was a little more outgoing and flirty than she might have been otherwise. That doesn’t mean that she wasn’t genuinely interested in flirting with you… it just means that she might not have done so in as open or blatant a manner. It might also mean that she wouldn’t normally because she had reasons for not doing so, reasons that may have seemed less important after a couple beers.
In the cold light of sobriety, she could be feeling more than a little awkward and embarrassed. God knows I’ve had plenty of times the morning after a party where I felt the chill of anxiety slithering up my spine and whispering “So… how big of an asshole were you last night?” Even when you didn’t actually act the fool, there’s always that vague feeling that maybe you did something stupid and just don’t remember it clearly. If her memory was a little fuzzy afterwards, that could very easily contribute to her feeling a little stiff and awkward afterwards; she’s uncomfortable because she can’t be 100% sure what she said, did or agreed to.
However, there’s another possibility: that she’s changed her mind about wanting to go flying with you. What may have seemed like a great idea at the time may have soured after she had a little time to think about it. I mean, while flying could be an amazing experience, it can also be kind of intense for a first date, especially with someone you only just met. It could very well be that she’s having second thoughts but doesn’t necessarily want to have the awkwardness of telling you so directly. It’s often easier to have an insurmountable obstacle that makes it impossible to go on that date than it is to say “yeaaaah, about that…”
In general, if someone is interested in you, it shouldn’t feel difficult to make plans with them; they’ll generally go out of their way to try to make things work. If their schedule is jammed — especially, say, towards the end of the semester and they’re taking a heavy course load — then they’ll usually try to find the time in their schedule when they can see you… even if it’s weeks down the line. They’ll also usually go for actual days, not just “some time after X”.
Now none of this means that she’s not interested or that she’s going to flake on you. These are just things to be aware of, so that you don’t spend a lot of effort watering a dead plant with your time and attention.
With all that being said, here’s my suggestion. One of the ways I recommend people keep the emotional momentum going via text is through humor. A sending a meme, for example, with a quick “hey, know you’re busy, saw this and thought of you” can help keep the lines of communication open and get her thinking about you. I would recommend doing that once and seeing how she responds. If she engages with you — as opposed to giving the bare minimum of a response, you can follow that up with “I know you’re busy with your exams, so how about we do something low-key afterwards?” Then invite her to ice cream or board games at a local coffee shop. It’s a lower-investment for a date and it’ll give you a chance to talk more at a time when she’s less stressed. Then, if things go well, you can see whether she’d be interested in going flying with you as a second date.
Previously published on doctornerdlove.com and is republished here under permission.
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