Dear Lala, genital herpes ruined my first love – and now its destroying my dating life

In Lalalaletmeexplain's hit column, readers ask for her expert advice on their own love, sex and relationship problems. With over 150k Instagram followers, Lala is the anonymous voice helping womankind through every bump in the road. An established sex, dating and relationship educator, she’s had her fair share of relationship drama and shares her wisdom on social media to a loyal army of followers.

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Dear Lala,

I recently went through my first (and what you might consider only break up). I’m 29 and was diagnosed with HSV-2 (genital herpes) when I was 19 years old after a non-consensual one-night stand at university.

This was only the second person I’d ever slept with. My first outbreak was the worst the nurse has ever seen. The pain and trauma of the diagnosis was dramatically worsened by this, and I went into a deep depression, even attempting suicide because I knew I’d never be able to have a normal dating life.

Fast forward a decade, I’m 29, living in London and I have next to no dating life. I’m not completely unattractive but since you attract the love you think you deserve, I wasn’t attracting anything. Until I met T.

We had an amazing first date but we got drunk, had sex and didn't use protection. I’d completely missed my window to disclose. The stigma around this unbelievably common STI gripped me with fear and I couldn’t bring myself to face yet more rejection I don’t believe I deserve for getting a skin rash every couple of years.

I thought we were happy until one drunken night (we’d both said the big L, me for the first time, something he later said I lied about to soften the blow) when I finally had the courage to disclose. That’s when it all changed.

He initially seemed somewhat supportive (despite saying we had to end things because of the fact I hadn’t told him, which I expected) but then he flipped and the gaslighting and verbal abuse began. Long messages telling me how selfish I am, how I ruined his life (he has been tested since and is negative and I believe I took all the precautions I could to protect him from something he could’ve easily had before and not known) how he would never forgive me, how I should’ve stuck to positive only dating sites, the list goes on.

I have accepted I was wrong for not disclosing (something I will absolutely be doing before any sort of sexual encounter moving forward) and apologised no end for my actions but never received one back.

The stigma has been so soul crushingly painful, and my confidence and self-esteem have never recovered since my diagnosis. I’m approaching 30 and fear I will spend the rest of my life alone and this thought hurts me no end.

Lala says…

I want to start by posting a link to some information from The World Health Organisation (WHO) about the herpes virus to ensure that readers know the basics.

WHO write on their website: "Infection with herpes simplex virus (HSV), known as herpes, is common globally. HSV type 1 (HSV-1) is typically transmitted by oral-to-oral contact and causes infection in or around the mouth (oral herpes/coldsores), but it can also cause genital herpes.

"HSV-2 is mainly sexually transmitted and causes genital herpes. Both oral and genital herpes are mostly asymptomatic or unrecognized but can cause painful blisters or ulcers at the site of infection, ranging from mild to severe.

"Infection is lifelong, and symptoms can recur over many years. Some medications are available to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms, but they cannot cure the infection."

According to WHO, an estimated 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 have HSV-1 and 491 million people aged between 15-49 have HSV-2. You are far from alone.

Women message me about having herpes ALL the time. Four billion of the world’s population are not destined for a life of enforced singledom because of their HSV status.

Millions of people with the virus have full and happy dating lives, (safe) sex lives, relationships and marriages. It’s not the virus that will impact on your ability to find a partner, but the way you feel about it will.

You acquired the virus in an extremely traumatic way which is likely to have contributed to your ongoing negative feelings and inability to accept it. I wonder if, subconsciously, the rape and the diagnosis have become inextricably linked.

Being subjected to sexual assault can cause deep feelings of unworthiness and shame, and you weren’t fully able to process and deal with that at the time because then you had to face the pain and trauma of your first outbreak.

The fact that you called it a "non-consensual one-night stand" instead of naming it as rape might indicate that you haven’t yet dealt with the harm that was done to you by that man.

You feel completely tainted by the virus, but maybe it’s more that you felt tainted and destroyed by what he put you through, rather than by having herpes. Your deep trauma around the virus may lessen if you are able to come to terms with the way in which you contracted it.

I think that it would benefit you greatly to have some therapy to help you to address this. Contacting London Survivors Gateway might be a good start. They are a multi-agency hub of services for survivors of sexual assault.

In terms of your last relationship, my honest thoughts are that your ex-partner is completely ignorant, uneducated, and that you definitely had a lucky escape because he showed his abusive true colours at the end there.

Informing partners is the right thing to do, and you should have told him sooner. I don’t think he is wrong for wanting to end the relationship because of feeling that the trust was gone, you removed his ability to consent, but that does not excuse his abusive reaction. He handled it incredibly badly. You both did, but you were ultimately in the wrong. I think he responded the way he did because you breached his consent, not because you have herpes.

His responses were stigmatising and came from a place of lack of education. Being uneducated about herpes isn’t problematic in itself, what’s problematic is that he threw things at you from a place of fear and misunderstanding and though he absolutely should have been informed before, not being informed didn’t actually put him at any greater risk – I assume you would have abstained if you had an outbreak and done what you could do keep him safe.

Yes, you should have disclosed before having unprotected sex with him BUT you didn’t put him at any greater risk than anyone else he might sleep with. He may well already have the virus and just not know about it.

Of the half a billion people living with the virus it is estimated that around 70% do not know that they have it because they are asymptomatic. Someone may have never had an outbreak and have absolutely no idea that they have it but still be able to pass it on. The virus can lay dormant for years, or even forever.

Someone could sleep with a new partner and then have their first outbreak and automatically assume they contracted it from the new partner, but it’s possible that they could have already had it in their system.

Silent virus shedding is the most common way to contract herpes, an asymptomatic carrier can silently shed the virus even though they’ve never had an outbreak.

Having sex with someone who is aware of their status and is able to manage it and recognise when an outbreak is pending (and can therefore abstain from sex during that period) could even be safer than having sex with someone recklessly who doesn’t even know they’ve got it.

Basically, we are all potentially at risk of catching herpes from anyone we sleep with whether they’ve experienced an outbreak or not, so his reaction was based on his lack of knowledge, not facts. And his reaction is the exact reason why so many people are fearful of disclosing.

The stigma is pervasive and people with the virus are conscious of that. If everybody was better educated, then the virus would be less likely to spread because more people would disclose. Reactions like his drive people to stay silent for fear of humiliation and rejection.

There’s a lot to be said for waiting to sleep with people until we trust them and feel able to have grown up conversations and I think that the fact that you slept with him on the first night contributed to you not telling him. As you said, it’s a big lesson for next time. And there will be a next time, if you want there to be.

Herpes does not exclude you from the dating world. You don’t need to apologise for having it, there is nothing wrong with you, it’s just a fact that you need to share to keep sexual partners safe and to give them the opportunity to give informed consent. People with herpes can have safe sex.

Because of stigma and poor public education on herpes, the reality is that some people will reject you for your status, but many others will say ‘Yeah, I’ve got herpes too’ or ‘Cool, teach me how we can do this as safely as possible’.

But before you even think about dating you need to work on your self-esteem. You need to work on absolute acceptance of you and your gorgeous herpes-having self. You should follow herpes positive accounts on Insta like @thestiproject @positive_results_us @safe.slut And listen to the Doing It Podcast with Hannah Whitton and Ella Dawson: ‘Living with herpes and STI stigma’.

Those accounts will give you tips for learning to accept yourself, warts and all. You are not your infection, or your past. You are a 29-year-old woman who deserves to be thriving and living, instead you’re being imprisoned by your own stigmatisation of yourself.

You aren’t dirty or abnormal, you have an incredibly common skin condition.

Follow lots of accounts run by people who have it and begin to learn to feel empowered with HSV. You cannot let it ruin your life.

Therapy will also help you to build your self-esteem. There are millions of people out here living their best lives with exactly the same skin condition as you.

The only thing that’s different is their mind-set. Start your journey. Use this post break up time to work on you. Enjoy your freedom.

Find you, and start living.

Follow @Lalalaletmeexplain on Instagram for more advice on sex and relationships.

Have a question for Lala? Email okletters@reachplc.com.

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