Having sex is supposed to be easy. As depicted in Hollywood movies, you’re supposed to fall into bed and just get busy. Sex happens seamlessly, as in no planning, no preparation, no discussion. Yet for many, that scenario is so unreal.
I regularly get e-mails from people on the singles scene or in budding relationships who are distressed over having a condition that’s likely to pose a problem. Most often, it’s a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that has set up shop in their system for life. So how does one talk about these unmentionables of sex?
Even if you think that this article doesn’t concern you, it might sooner or later. Annually, 19 million Americans acquire an STD. This is in large part because so many people don’t know that they’re infecting others.
Take, for example, that two-thirds of the 45 million Americans with genital herpes never have any symptoms. Even though it’s typically not possible to contract a virus unless there’s an active breakout, in this case, a red rash or blister, some individuals can pass the virus along. They may not know it, but they could be carriers.
In extreme cases, they may find themselves going from the bedroom to the courtroom. Former lovers have been known to take each other to court over who infected whom. Thus, you could find yourself liable for transmitting an infection you didn’t know you had.
Getting involved with someone is hard enough. Add to that the skeletons in your closet, like a herpes infection, and a person can be consumed with a great deal of anxiety. When is the best time to mention that you have a viral infection? How should you go about it? How’s your potential partner doing to react?
These are the concerns a person with a lifelong viral condition, like HIV, needs to deal with anytime he or she enters a new sexual relationship. Add to this the chance of rejection, loss of confidentiality, potential humiliation and other adverse consequences, and you’ve got more than a knee-knocking situation.
Thankfully, there are ways you can prepare yourself for the tough conversation:
You’ll feel self-assured in knowing all of the facts. Knowledge is power. Educating yourself not only helps you to understand the infection and how it impacts your body physically and emotionally. Gathering information also restores your sense of self and body ownership as you regain a sense of control and learn to cope.
Get to know your body.
Make a note of when your outbreaks occur, such as when you’re under a great deal of stress or consume lots of caffeine. This will give you a better sense of the timing of outbreaks. You’ll come away having a greater sense of control over the infection and bodily changes, plus feel better equipped in countering triggers via better self-care.
Be kind to yourself as you adjust to having an infection and your self-image, perhaps even talking to a mental health counselor.
When you actually break the news, you can successfully, confidently handle the situation by doing the following:
1. Plan to share in an emotionally neutral environment and not in the heat of passion.
2. Deliver the news without sounding anxious, panicky or stressed. This will just make things sound worse than they are. Aim to sound calm and confident.
3. Be open-minded and ask that your potential partner be the same.
4. Be prepared to correct myths or calm fears.
5. Highlight the fact that some viruses get a bad rap. Oral herpes, genital herpes, shingles and chicken pox, for example, are all due to having acquired a virus that remains in one’s nervous system permanently. Yet genital herpes is stigmatized much more often than your common cold sore or chicken pox outbreak.
6. If things are going well, devise a game plan on how you’ll protect yourselves from here on out. This includes tons of communication, trust, care and protection.
It also requires encouraging abstinence during outbreaks. While using condoms minimizes the risks, with herpes and HPV (a.k.a. genital warts), it’s still possible to transmit the virus via skin on skin contact.
7. If things don’t go well, remember that, while it feels very personal, it’s quite impersonal for somebody to not take on a lover because of the sexual and reproductive health risks involved. Along the same vein, don’t interpret rejection as meaning that you’re a bad person. You’re not. You did the right thing.
Whether you’re the one delivering the news or receiving it, it’s important to remember that those who have a viral infection are focused on their potential partner’s rights. They see sharing as a must in having a good relationship. Those who share (which tend to be most infected individuals) feel compelled to share because they have a better sense of ethics about the situation.
They don’t want to put their partner through the same experience they’ve had. They want to protect their partner as best they can. They want a relationship defined by truth, openness and sharing. Consequently, some partners of infected individuals see the STD as de-stigmatized by a lover’s forthrightness. Ultimately, lovers can feel closer in better knowing each other, and in becoming a team in protecting themselves from here on out.
Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."