I was in the middle of a classic post-messy-breakup move: getting over someone by getting under someone else.
His name was Steve. He had the kind of good looks described in Jackie Collins novels as all-American, with sandy blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and broad shoulders kissed by the California sun. His profession? An artist. And if reading copious amounts of Jackie’s frothy works had taught me anything, that meant he was going to be good with his hands.
The man he was supposed to erase from my memory didn’t matter anymore. What did matter was that Steve's artistic hands were sliding down my hips and taking my underwear with them, and I hadn’t yet told him I had herpes. After 15 years of living with the STD, my dalliance with Steve would mark the first time I’d ever told a partner of my condition before we’d had sex.
I wasn’t proud that I’d kept this secret over the years. Having an STD was traumatic on its own, but knowing that I wasn’t being upfront about it with paramours churned my stomach. The deceit added an extra level of self-disgust to my situation. But the biggest shame-filled issue for me wasn’t just that I had it, but how I'd gotten it.
In a way I wished I'd gotten it from being promiscuous. Somehow I felt like it would be easier to explain. But the reality was that I had been left with a permanent reminder of rape.
I was a teenager when it happened. I have a hard time recalling what was a more horrific feeling -- the moment when I woke up on the floor of a strange apartment next to a man I trusted, with my jeans and panties around my ankles and my thighs sticking together? Or was it when, later, after failing to find relief for the physical agony I was experiencing, my physician explained what herpes was, leaving me with the news that I now had a horrible souvenir of a night I didn’t remember? It all plunged me into a depression so deep that it terrified the scariest of my personal demons. I was broken.
Because I was still in high school, at least on an intermittent basis, sex education was a mandatory thing. I squirmed when we reached the STD lesson, and not just because I was dealing with a fresh outbreak. My classmates had helpful input on this aspect of sex: "Just make them wear a big, red letter on their chest for whatever they’ve got: C for crabs, A for AIDS," trumpeted one, while another commented that the easiest way to stay immune was to avoid “dirty whores.”
I was getting the message loud and clear: not only was I unworthy of healthy sexual expression and exploration, but also the resulting STD officially made me unfit for physical connection.
I sequestered myself away. I couldn’t bear the thought of saddling someone with the searing pain I was experiencing on a semi-regular basis. But as time went on, two things happened: first, I started getting used to the trajectory of my outbreaks, gaining an understanding of how, when and why they came. And second, I grew desperate to feel loved. Though the isolation felt safer on a lot of levels, it was starting to get to me.
So with my former classmates’ commentary drowning out the common-sense teachings I’d learned back in sex ed, I met a guy who became my boyfriend, and slept with him. I didn’t breathe a word of my condition. I felt lucky to find someone who would want me after being raped -- I didn’t want to take the chance that my STD would chase him away. Somehow I found it easier to discuss the rape, even though the stigma of both weighed heavily on me. I felt like my tarnished sexuality was easier to take without the threat of lovers being left with their own permanent reminder of our time together.
It took until my early 20s to finally find the guts to tell my then-lover about my condition, but even then I felt like I couldn’t say it until after I’d slept with him. My self-esteem was so lacking -- and so firmly ingrained with the idea that my worth lay in being a sexual object -- that I believed I had to rope them in physically so they wouldn’t leave.
The first time I told a lover, he left me laying in bed to go get drunk at the pub down the street. The second time was after I had moved to San Francisco to be with a man I was going to marry. The torrents of rage he threw at me left me so demoralized that I didn’t tell the man I slept with shortly after our divorce. But when things got serious with a boyfriend in my late 20s, I knew I had to be honest -- so I went back to my post-coital game plan.
“I have it, too,” he said, then backtracked. “Well, I get cold sores. That’s the same thing, right?”
It didn’t dawn on me until that relationship that telling a lover could deepen trust and result in more connected, passionate sex.
Which brings me back to the moment of truth with Steve. I didn’t feel like it was in any way mature or responsible for me to wait until after the deed was done. So as he followed his hands and my panties with his lips, I gently touched his shoulder and said, “Wait. We need to talk about something before you go down there.”
He didn’t so much pause as he did freeze. He looked up and asked, “Everything okay?”
I nodded, took a deep breath. "So, I want to make you aware of the fact that I have an STD."
"Which one?" he asked.
"Herpes," I said, letting the words fall out of my mouth in one long, run-on sentence: "It's been a long time since I've had an outbreak, but I wanted to let you know before we went further so you could make an educated decision for yourself."
He processed what I'd said, then replied sincerely, "I appreciate that. And I don't know a lot about it; I'd like to do some research so I understand what I'm getting into, and we can take it from there."
He laid down next to me and curled his arms around me, pulling me close and tucking my head under his chin. I was amazed. Was this really happening, or was I living some kind of beautifully scripted dream? I sighed happily, squeezing my arm around him.
After a few moments of silence I felt him take a breath. "You couldn't have told me this earlier?"
My turn to freeze: "I'm sorry?"
"You had to wait until we were in bed to tell me?" he demanded.
"When did you want me to tell you, over sushi?" I interrupted.
He quieted again, but his body had stiffened. I pulled away. Then: "You know when you lent me your Carmex earlier this evening?" he asked. "Have you ever used that on an open sore?"
Bitter laughter escaped my lips despite my best efforts to squelch it. "Do you really think I'd bother to tell you about it before we had sex if I were going to let you use infected Carmex without a word?"
"I'm not being judgmental," he continued. "It's just that I've always been in monogamous relationships, you know?"
I found his reaction surprising, considering we were living in an era where it’s estimated that more than half of the population will have experience with an STD at some point. He prattled on about wanting to wrap me in Saran Wrap so we could fool around (I asked him if he wanted a hazmat suit), and then explained how I should at least give him head. I found myself shutting down. I knew not everyone would react like this, but was there something about the way I approached it that was bringing out the beast?
I decided to spend more time single and celibate to figure out a lot of things -- chiefly among them, my attitude about my STD. I worked with my therapist, chatted with friends who also had STDs, analyzed the reactions of lovers who freaked out, and journaled about my thoughts on all of it. And through it all I discovered I had a pattern: I was still approaching The Conversation with an overwhelming fear of rejection. After arduous hours of work with my therapist, I’d long since made peace with the rape that begat the blisters… and yet, I still hadn’t accepted that they were a part of me, however intermittently, for better or worse.
“I have a question for you,” my therapist asked one afternoon. “Have any of your past lovers ever asked you about your sexual health before your encounters? Why is it all on you to do the reveal?” It was a good question, which raised another issue: I was so consumed with the idea that someone might not want me because of my sexual health that I hadn’t taken into consideration that I should be asking my lovers about their sexual health, too.
I knew then that I had to stop looking at my STD as my enemy and start using it as a natural filter. I knew there was still the possibility that some men would choose not to be involved with me. But the ones who freaked out weren’t right to shame me. They were just proving themselves unworthy of sharing such a personal side of me, both physically and emotionally.
I didn’t take another lover until two years later, when I met a man that Jackie Collins would describe as brilliant and charming -- a brunette with a bad-boy edge, a writer and musician with the soul of a poet. We sparked almost immediately, and I knew we were going to sleep together if he could handle the news of my STD.
I didn’t plan the night I was going to tell him; all I knew was I didn’t want to wait until we were moments away from doing the deed. We had been drawing out the anticipation of our eventual union, but I didn’t want to wait too long lest the physical exploration go too far, putting me right back where I started. So one evening as we petted heavily on his couch like horny teenagers, I diffused some of the tension by asking for a top-off of my wine. He kissed me sweetly and obliged while I straightened my shirt and regained my composure.
“So, I think it’s about time we had the sexual health talk, don’t you?” I asked as he returned from the kitchen.
“Sure, darling, what do you want to know?” he asked. “I mean, I’m clean, but if you want me to get tested I’d be happy to give you the results.”
“That would be nice, but just so you know, I’m not,” I said evenly. “I have herpes. I’m very mindful of it and have never given it to someone else, but I want you to know so you can make your own decision about it.”
I could see the cogs in his brain turning as he took a sip of his wine. Then he turned to me and said, “Well, that’s no big deal, is it? I mean, everyone has that. Except me, of course.”
And that was that. We went to bed two weeks later.