Truth: The majority of people likely have some form of herpes (yep, that’s right). An estimated 67 percent of people worldwide under the age of 50 are carrying the oral strain (HSV-1), and 11 percent carry the genital strain (HSV-2) , according to the World Health Organization.
Further, an estimated 90 percent of people have been exposed to the virus by age 50. Oh yeah, and the numbers are probably higher than that, since herpes isn’t included on a routine STI panel, and many symptomless people go undiagnosed.
Yet despite the virus’s prevalence, the stigma surrounding herpes is real—and that can make telling a new partner about your status difficult, intimidating, and awkward AF.
But “if you are diagnosed, do not panic,” says Sarah Watson, a licensed professional counselor and certified sex therapist. Herpes is not a death sentence for your sex life, but you do need to let your partners know, just as you would need to tell them if you had any other STD. Here’s how to tell your S.O. that you have herpes, as comfortably and painlessly as possible.
1. Come prepared.
Regardless of how undeserved the stigma is, jumping right into your STI status can be jarring in any scenario—and Watson suggests easing into it with a line like: “I have something that I need to share with you and I hope you are open to having a discussion with me about it.”
“Compose a script if it helps express what you are feeling, and understand if your partner may want in-depth information versus the surface medical information,” says Sheila Loanzon, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist and author of Yes, I Have Herpes: A Gynecologist’s Perspective In and Out of the Stirrups.
Your partner will likely have questions, and you want to be able to provide them with accurate, nerve-quieting information that makes your status feel as normal as it really and truly is, so come armed with some facts, Loanzon says.
Explain that herpes is way more common than people realize—an estimated 776,000 people in the U.S. get new infections each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Plus, be prepared to tell your S.O. if you’re on a medication (like Valtrex or Famvir) to manage any outbreaks, and exactly how that Rx can reduce their risk of infection. (Get more facts about herpes here.)
2. Timing is everything.
“I encourage disclosure to a partner when you think things may get sexually intimate at some point,” Loanzon says. “Perhaps it is after your second date, perhaps it is when you are an exclusive relationship.” But whatever you do, don’t wait until you’re in the heat of the moment and too horny to have a real discussion about your STD history.
3. Consider the location.
No, you might not want to make this announcement in the middle of a crowded restaurant, but as Watson advises, you might not want to make this pillow talk, either.
“Aim for your disclosure location to be someplace quiet where you are able to speak freely, and not be worried if someone is overhearing your conversation,” says Loanzon. “The conversation may become emotionally charged and upsetting, so it’s best to be some place safe and free from distraction.”
Maybe in your own home, or theirs—someplace with an easy exit, just in case one of you feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
4. Channel that confidence.
This is a nerve-wracking moment, for sure, but Loanzon emphasizes that confidence helps it go as smoothly as possible. “It is important to realize that there are many people living with the virus successfully and happily,” she says. “Being herpes-positive does not mean that you are not lovable. You may be surprised: when you disclose, they may disclose they have herpes too!”
“This virus doesn’t define you,” Watson adds. “This is something that you have to live with and most likely that just means taking a pill daily and using protection. Don’t let the stigma take over. You are not the virus, you didn’t choose to contract it.”
5. Remember that assholes don’t deserve your time.
No matter how misplaced herpes panic may be, it exists, and it may mean your partner reacts in a less-than-satisfactory way when you tell them about your status. “Please realize that others may be afraid of the virus, it’s not you!” Loanzon stresses, while also calling out one notable silver lining: “Herpes can be a natural filter for dating, and eliminate those who will not surround you with support and love.”
“If someone responds negatively or ignorantly,” Watson notes, “you might not be able to change their minds with information. Let them go.” You have to be vulnerable in this moment, and while you can do your best to educate your partner, you shouldn’t have to try to convince them to stick around if they get hung up on the herpes.
Because if someone acts immediately hurtful or offensive, or if they’re scared off by your diagnosis, they’re probably not worth your time long-term anyway.
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