Yes, this also means disclosing oral herpes. Sometimes, “people don’t care as much about oral infections because…stigma de-emphasizes one and sensationalizes the other,” Jenelle Pierce, an AASECT-certified sexuality educator and the executive director of the STI Project, tells SELF.
But it’s important to disclose whether you get cold sores early on in a sexual relationship, Susan Milstein, CPH, an MCHES-certified health educator specializing in STIs, tells SELF. “Mouths can come into sexual play way sooner than genitals,” she says. And many people default to unprotected oral sex because they assume it’s safer than other forms of sex in terms of STI prevention, or they believe that “it doesn’t count as real sex.” Which is not the case! And, again, unprotected oral sex is an increasingly prevalent cause of genital herpes infections.
All that said: How do you actually, literally tell someone that you have herpes? Emily Depasse, MSW, MEd, who specializes in STI-focused sex education, says that the talk can be daunting due to stigma, and few of us ever receive any guidance on how to discuss STIs with partners. It’s understandable to worry that disclosures will suck all the passion out of a room or scare a partner off. In reality, disclosures don’t have to be a harrowing, mood-killing ordeal. Most of the experts SELF spoke to suggest simply stating your status as a neutral fact, rather than apologizing for it or treating it like a flaw.
Picking the time and place for this is about what feels most comfortable for you and your partner. Whenever it happens, “make it a conversation, rather than a monologue,” Melissa King, LMHC, a therapist who’s worked with people who have herpes for more than 20 years, tells SELF. “Start with one or two sentences, like, ‘I have herpes. This is how it affects me.’ End by inviting the other person to have a discussion.” (If improvising this feels intimidating, Depasse has created basic scripts to help.)
As you answer questions about herpes, you don’t need to have every single data point memorized. If something slips your mind, you can look it up together. (Just use credible sources like the CDC’s or Planned Parenthood’s herpes fact sheets—not, like, a TikTok account called @STIbadboy.)
While sharing your status can sometimes feel tricky or uncomfortable, it can lead to better sex and relationships. “Even with casual partners,” notes Depasse, “communication is imperative for the more exciting aspects of sex, like turn-ons and using toys.” If it seems like things are going well and the mood is right, you can even use disclosure as a springboard to discuss sex more broadly—like what you each like and aren’t as into, for example.
Still, it’s always possible that the other person in your sexual equation won’t put aside their internalized stigmas. “Some potential partners won’t be able to deal,” King acknowledges. “But many will.” The people with herpes interviewed for this story say they’ve experienced one or two rejections following a disclosure—but the majority of people they spoke with were open to learning more.
How to have safer sex if you have herpes
The most frequent adjustments people with herpes make to their sex lives involve reducing transmission risks, Kristen Lilla, LSCW, an AASECT-certified sex therapist and educator, tells SELF.