When *Sarah, 26, a journalist from London, found out she'd caught herpes from *Liam, a man she had just started seeing, she thought her love life was over. Now, four years after being diagnosed, she is able to enjoy dating again and feels happier than ever.
I was sitting on a plane, returning home from a work trip in France, when I received the dreaded text message from my sexual health clinic confirming I was positive for genital herpes (known as HSV-2). I sat silently between two work colleagues, trying to hold back the tears.
It was 2019, and I quickly realised I contracted HSV-2 from the guy I had been dating. We met when I was on a girls’ holiday in Spain, and we were seeing each other for about two months when I went to spend a weekend with him at his army barracks in Bury St Edmunds.
Pressured into unprotected sex
For most of the weekend, I’d had safe sex, or at least as ‘safe’ as I thought. I brought condoms with me and although they were used initially, *Liam took a dislike to using them, and began mocking me for wanting to use protection and for ‘ruining’ the experience. He insisted we have sex without them and although I was apprehensive, we slept together unprotected.
This was the first man I’d had sex with in over two years of celibacy, having been single for four years in total. I’d always wanted to pursue sex with a partner when I felt like it was developing into a relationship, so casual sex didn’t appeal to me.
Looking back, I wish I’d trusted my intuition because that weekend would change my life forever. Within a couple of days of our sexual encounter, I developed flu-like symptoms and small swollen blisters around my vagina – along my labia minora.
I remember feeling sharp shooting pains down one leg and along my right arm all the way to my fingers. I ached all over. I knew something was wrong and booked in to get myself tested. I’d always taken my sexual health seriously and would screen after each new partner.
I walked out of the STI clinic feeling like my whole world had been turned upside down.
Braving the STI clinic
I remember feeling so ashamed to be sat in the waiting room of the sexual health clinic and actually having symptoms, which is silly, because that’s what the service is there for. I went into the check-up room, took my trousers and knickers off and laid self-consciously with my legs in stirrups.
"It looks like you have genital herpes, also known as HSV-2," my sexual health nurse said, before asking all the necessary questions and if I was OK.
I began to cry.
"We’ll have to take blood tests to confirm everything and you should hear back within the next week." I walked out of the clinic feeling like my whole world had been turned upside down.
The first few weeks were a blur of tears and self-pity. I couldn’t control my emotions as I dealt with the physical symptoms of the virus and what I thought to be the far worse symptoms of grief and distress. The emotional pain from the diagnosis felt like a death. The young woman I thought I was becoming had disappeared.
Every news article I read about living with herpes was negative or felt like there was no light at the end of it all. I spent hours researching herpes online and how it might affect my future.
All I could think about was that no one would ever want to date me again – despite learning it’s more common than you’d think. In fact, an estimated 491 million people aged 15-49 (13% of the world’s population) have the HSV-2 infection, according to the World Health Organization.
The first few weeks after my diagnosis were a blur of tears and self-pity.
Painful blisters and ulcers
Whilst most HSV infections are asymptomatic or unrecognised, symptoms of herpes include painful blisters or ulcers that can recur over time. Although I knew the facts, I couldn’t help but feel alone. I wish I could tell that version of myself how life would get better and that I wouldn't have to suffer in silence for what’s basically a skin condition.
At first, having herpes knocked my confidence completely. I didn’t see value in myself anymore and lost the ability to feel deserving of sexual pleasure. They say that the first year with herpes is often the worst as the body deals with the virus in your system. You’re more prone to outbreaks of blisters and feeling achy and I was finding myself getting an outbreak every month around my period.
During the first year, I would take regular prescriptions of Aciclovir to deal with the sores. After a year though, the symptoms suddenly subsided. I found myself thinking about herpes less and it stopped becoming the first thing I thought about every day and the last thing I thought about at night. I started to enjoy life again.
Through a specialist trauma therapy called Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, I was able to really get to the root cause of the emotional pain. Feelings of internalised shame and trauma stored in my body from the experience meant that for about two years I couldn’t even say the word ‘herpes’.
Having herpes knocked my confidence completely. I lost the ability to feel I deserved sexual pleasure.
I called it 'my situation' to friends and family who I confided in. I was finally able to say the words, "I have herpes" without my body freezing up, legs going wobbly and tears bubbling to the surface. I worked through letting go of the person I was before herpes and how I could step into this new version of myself that deserves to be loved.
There have been points on my journey where I have felt feelings of jealousy for friends who would have casual hook-ups without having to disclose their entire life story. I put a lot of pressure on myself to get that bit right. I found it hard to prepare myself for when I would have to disclose my condition to new partners.
Telling sexual partners
I’ve dated five men since my diagnosis, and each experience has prompted a range of reactions. The first boyfriend I ever slept with after my diagnosis was lovely, he listened and didn’t let it impact us having a good time dating.
Another I told in the middle of hooking up. He freaked out after everything had happened, left the next day and never spoke to me again. I quickly worked out that it was best to have the conversation before any intimacy was happening. I’ve been able to open up about it when I feel ready to and typically that is before things get physical.
Therapy helped me see that a lot of the pain I was holding on to was from feeling like I couldn’t move on from my condition, that it had become part of my identity. Tell someone I’m interested in too soon that I have herpes and they may not want to get to know the real me. Tell them too late and I fear I have done exactly what Liam did to me – not disclose his condition.
I’ve learnt that each person I date will take the information differently and that all I can do is present each partner with the facts. Having herpes made me feel like I had no autonomy over my body or right to deserve the best for myself, but that couldn’t be more wrong. Now I am open with friends, family and potential partners. It’s changed the way I date, but for the better.
One boyfriend freaked out after I told him I had herpes, he left the next day and never spoke to me again.
Finding someone who understands
Men I meet who aren’t willing to sleep with me knowing the risks once I have opened up to them, aren’t worth my time. I have also learnt that I too, must respect their decision to have autonomy over their body.
As I have continued to date, I view things differently and know that someone's past does not define them. I feel more open-minded and respectful of people’s pasts and I’ve learnt so much about the importance of communication and finding someone who understands and is willing to listen.
We all deserve the chance to find happiness from relationships and enjoy sex. I wish there were more positive stories about life with herpes, because I know as more people open up, how they do on platforms like TikTok, where creators are openly talking about living with HSV-2, that it could help to remove the stigma.
Currently, there is no cure for herpes, so learning to live with the condition is the only way to move on. Ultimately, I am just living with a skin condition that I contracted through sex. It occasionally flares up when I’m stressed or run down. I take extra care of my body and limit anything that might affect my health. In a way, it’s been a wake-up call to put myself first when I’m dating and having sex.
I know my worth and having herpes doesn’t make me any less deserving of finding 'the one'.
Being single, I’ve been able to explore this new territory when dating. I know my worth and I know having herpes doesn’t make me any less deserving of finding 'the one'. There is a life after herpes and it’s a life worth living.
My advice to others with herpes
You can’t control how someone will react to you telling them you have herpes, but you can control how it makes you feel. Do you want to continue pursuing a relationship with someone who doesn’t value you, even when you’re being honest with them?
If someone does take the news you have an STI well, you also don’t owe it to them to stick out the relationship and make it work.
Keeping your sexual partners informed is vital, but it’s not your responsibility to feel guilty for the other person if they choose to have a sexual relationship with you knowing those risks and then contract something.
Everyone should have regular sexual health screenings, even if you have no symptoms.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.