Question: I’ve met with a couple of people from an online dating website. A couple of times, things have gone well enough that I’ve bitten the bullet and sent along a very awkward email in which I ask about health and safety. I’m always embarrassed to bring these issues up, but of course it’s so important… since I have to be mindful of impacts to my partner’s health as well as my own. Anyway, here’s a quote from the email, so you know where I’m coming from:
“So I’ll share my side of things: to the best of my knowledge both my partner and I have clean records. No STI’s of any sort (not even cold sores). Now, I have never specifically gone to be tested–I know I really should–but we gave blood last year and didn’t hear anything (they screen for lots of things, obviously). It’s also been a couple years since the last time I took up with a new partner, and I’ve never experienced any symptoms. I have *always* used condoms outside my primary relationship, and will continue to do so. My primary partner and I don’t use barriers, of course, but I’ve had a vasectomy, so pregnancy shouldn’t ever be a concern. Please let me know, in turn, if there’s anything I should know about your health or history.”
Well, much to my consternation, one person has replied to this by admitting that she has, in the past, been exposed to HSV-1 (ie oral herpes or ‘cold sores’)—but has never shown symptoms herself—and has also been diagnosed with HSV-2 (ie genital herpes)—but hasn’t experienced symptoms in several years.
I’m not entirely sure how to react to this news; it’s pretty outside my realm of experience. First and foremost, of course, I’m overwhelmingly grateful for this person’s willingness to be so honest about an uncomfortable subject.
Still, my initial reaction is to say: if she carries these viruses, that’s a dealbreaker; we can’t ever be intimate; we have to break things off before they even start.
But is this a naive, paranoid reaction? My understanding is that the prevalence of these viruses is surprisingly high in the general population. Surely it must be higher still among the non-monogamous community? Or is the opposite true: do non-monogamous people tend to be extra careful, and therefore have a lower incidence? The idea of exposing myself to risk of herpes infection is frankly terrifying… because it never goes away, and would therefore cast a shadow over not just my current relationship, but also any future, potential ones. Of course I could take the gamble, then wait until getting tested myself before taking on any new partners… but still, I can’t help being worried about how that might play out.
On the other hand, if I’m determined to avoid even the slightest chance of exposure… is there any realistic hope of that while engaging in non-monogamy?!
Answer: STIs are an issue when you’re engaged in non-monogamy. As I reported in a previous blog (https://askmiriamquestions.wordpress.com/2013/09/27/lets-talk-about-sex/), poly people tend to get tested more often, so that’s good news.
There is information available on herpes at the Hassle Free Clinic in Toronto’s website here: http://www.hasslefreeclinic.org/Herpes.php It’s also a great place to go get tested. According to some research I’ve done, herpes is much more likely to be passed to someone else when you have symptoms such as cold sores. You should use a barrier if you are experiencing an outbreak. If you have cold sores in your mouth, use a dental dam when giving oral sex. If you have genital herpes, use a condom. You can also wait to have sex when the outbreak has passed. There is no cure for herpes so there are chances of catching it when there isn’t an outbreak and many adults are carrying it anyway. The same is true for HPV.
It all depends on what you are comfortable with. I suggest having a conversation in person about these issues with the person you met through the website. Since they haven’t been specifically tested for STIs, I think you are within your rights to ask them to be tested. Talk to your primary partner as well. There are always risks but these risks can be managed. I have heard that the more you worry about STIs, the less likely you are to use protection when you should. Sex should be fun so don’t do it if you’re worried. That being said, even with all the testing done, tests don’t pick up everything. I generally advise people to go with their gut. If something feels off, don’t have sex with this person. You have many other options…