DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a man in my 30s with next to none sexual experience. There are various reasons for my lack of experience, but I think the main reason is that I’m far too picky, when you consider my own attractiveness. The lack of sex in my life has bothered me quite frequently, and the only reason I haven’t visited a sex worker yet is that I’m morbidly afraid of STDs. Herpes, to be more precise. I understand that most people will contract HSV-1 during their lifetime, and HSV-2 too is quite widespread. I also understand that most infections are asymptomatic and when they aren’t, the symptoms are mostly manageable. Still, because of my kissless and sexless life, I have been able to count myself among, for lack of a better word, the clean ones (not trying to shame of stigmatise, you can probably tell that English isn’t my first language), and this has been a great source of joy in my life. Now I’m afraid that I have thrown it away for nothing.
I recently met a woman in a bar (unlike much of the world we aren’t under lockdown) that for some reason seemed to be quite infatuated with me. At some point she asked if I would like to have sex with her and I thought why not, she was good company and attractive enough. Or so I thought, since it turned out that I wasn’t nearly as aroused by her that I thought I would be. I couldn’t maintain an erection and all our attempts to have intercourse more or less failed. I ended up fingering her and although she seemed to enjoy herself, I felt a little bad for wasting her time.
I would be more than able to laugh the whole incident off, if it wasn’t for the health aspect. I don’t claim to be the greatest judge of character, but she seemed like someone who would have a rather active sex life. I’m not judging, that just would make her more likely to carry the viruses I dread. I think it’s needless to say that I wore a condom and I was under the impression that the risk of catching herpes during dormant periods is somewhat low. I haven’t had any symptoms yet, but I’m not sure if it makes me feel any better. Asymptomatic herpes isn’t usually tested here, so I pretty much have no way of knowing if I’m as healthy as I used to be. And this makes me feel awfully dirty. Not to mention, now I have started to see crabs everywhere.
I see little reason why I would be having sex on a regular basis from now on. I have a extremely high sex drive, but it also seems like I see sex as something inherently disgusting. I think I would need a perfect partner to get over the dirtiness of the act. Now I feel like I have traded the only pro of having no sex life for the worst con of having one. Because of a momentary lapse of judgment I went from somebody who had zero partners to somebody who has fifty, and only thing I have to show for it is an experience I could have lived without. I used to think that I had a rather relaxed attitude towards sex, but it seems I’m not nearly as open minded as I thought I was. I’m not sure how much better I would feel if I had enjoyed the experience, but I’m sure I would feel far better if I had shared it with somebody I would perceive more chaste, and this bothers me somewhat.
Any any advice how to cope with this all would be appreciated
Not Trying To Be Dramatic But Did I Ruin My Life For Nothing
DEAR NOT TRYING TO BE DRAMATIC: First and foremost, NTBD: I think you should talk to a therapist. That level of obsession and those intrusive thoughts sound an awful lot like a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s something that’s best addressed by a psychologist, who can help provide answers and courses of treatment that can help get those thoughts and fears under control.
But whether it IS a form of OCD or not… hoo boy.
So let’s cut right to the chase. First of all: the odds that you caught herpes from this person are pretty minimal. Second of all: your problem isn’t that you “ruined your life”, it’s that you’re obsessing about herpes to the point that you’re giving yourself a breakdown.
Regardless of whether you’re suffering from an emotional disorder or not, you’ve assigned a moral judgment to sex and sexuality and that being “the clean ones” is somehow a mark of your superiority. Except… it’s not. A viral infection is inherently outside of morality; it doesn’t mean anything except that you’d been exposed to the virus. Not having HSV-1 or HSV-2 doesn’t make you any better or worse than someone who does have it. It just means, quite literally, that you haven’t come in contact with the virus. Period.
The same is true for whether or not somebody’s a virgin or whether they’ve had sex: all it means is that somebody has had a particular experience. The number of partners they’ve had is equally, ultimately irrelevant as to whether they’re a good person or bad person. There’re folks who could qualify for sainthood who’ve had dozens or even hundreds of partners. There’re mass-murderers who have never touched another person’s genitals in any way, shape or form. Assigning value to someone based on serostatus is, ultimately, a bulls--t idea… especially when we’re talking about an infection like HSV-1 or HSV-2. Between the percentage of the population who’ve been exposed to either virus, the fact that most people who have herpes are entirely unaware of it and the fact that herpes is just a skin condition, treating having herpes like a world-shattering event is frankly, stigmatizing horsef--kery.
And let’s be real here, that’s what you’ve done. You’ve elevated the idea of having a cold sore to a “life-ruining event” based on what’s ultimately a moralistic value. While I realize English isn’t your first language, the way you describe things and the words you choose are incredibly telling. “One of the clean ones”. “Dirty”, “perfect partner”… That’s all pretty f--ked up, dude, especially considering the number of people in your life — including your parents, your friends and co-workers — who very well may have the virus and not know it.
And here’s the thing: you should honestly know better. It’s pretty clear that you’ve done your research about herpes as an STI. But it doesn’t seem clear to me that the truth of the matter has actually sunk in: that herpes is ultimately an inconvenience. An outbreak can be painful and annoying. A cold sore isn’t going to be all that aesthetically pleasing to look at. But the worst case scenario for having herpes is… more frequent breakouts. That’s it. Painful, unsightly, and it means a brief period of abstinence, but those are fairly minor in the scheme of things.
Your attitude, however, is the problem. The way that you’re treating both the possibility of having herpes or the possibility that someone else does, actually increases the odds of being exposed to the virus. Because the stigma surrounding herpes is so high — vastly outweighing the actual effects of having the infection — people are less likely to get tested, less likely to get treatment and less likely to disclose to potential partners. If people don’t get tested, they have no way of knowing if they’re carrying the virus or not. If they don’t know, they can’t get treatment, which not only lessens the frequency and severity of outbreaks, but also decreases the chances of transmission. And by creating an atmosphere where people are less likely to disclose that they have herpes, then they and their partners are less likely to take precautions that would help prevent the spread of the disease. That, in turn, increases the knock-on effects of having been exposed to HSV-1 or 2. I’ve seen couples go through hell because one of them had an outbreak, leading them to be absolutely convinced that their partner must have cheated. In reality: one of them had been exposed in a previous relationship, and simply had no idea that they had it at all. But all that heartache and trauma they went through came about because we treat it as “something that ruins your life forever.”
And, I mean, let’s look at your reaction here. First, you’re making all kinds of assumptions about your partner based on… well, nothing at all, other than you and she went to bed together. Maybe she has had an active sex life. Or maybe you’re the third or fourth person she’s ever slept with. You have no idea; you’re basing all of this on hypotheticals and things that you’ve conjured up out of thin air. That goes hand-in-hand with the whole “I’ve gone from someone who’s had zero partners to someone who’s had 50.” No you didn’t, dude. That whole “you’re sleeping with everyone they ever slept with” is sex-shame-y horse-s--t that got spread around at the height of the AIDS crisis and is mostly used to justify abstinence-only education. Not only is it not actual risk-assessment, it’s not even accurate. If someone were going around banging everyone who said “yeah sure why not” and not using a condom, EVER… sure, we can say that he’s slept with everyone that his partners have ever slept with. But someone who’s getting tested regularly so they know to get treated if they do pick up an infection and making sure to use condoms every time, then the only person they’re sleeping with is the person they’re actually in bed with.
And if they and their partner are in a mutually monogamous relationship? Then that loop is closed entirely.
Here’s what you need to do. First of all: go get tested for STIs. Make sure that you ask for the full battery, including herpes. NOT because your one hook-up might have infected you, but because it’s what responsible, sexually active people do. Getting tested means you can get treated, and it means you aren’t at risk of spreading any infections to your future partners. Next: watch Ella Dawson’s TED talk about herpes and dating, followed by reading up on what Planned Parenthood has to say about herpes and safe sex practices in general so that you can have the facts. Then, like I said: go talk to a counselor. The level of terror this is inspiring in you is neither productive, nor healthy. All it’s doing is making you miserable and cutting you off from relationships or even just simple pleasure in your life.
I get not wanting to contract an STI. Herpes may not be a big deal, but it’s entirely legitimate and understandable that you’d rather not catch it. But the fact of the matter is that life is a full-contact sport. Everything you do comes with risks. You take risks walking out your front door in the morning. You take risks when you eat a sandwich, commute to work or, yes, have sex. Part of living is understanding and managing those risks, deciding which are acceptable and how to mitigate them where you can. Right now, you’re letting your fear and your judgement paralyze you. Talking to a therapist can help you get past those fears and actually let you enjoy your life and the full cabaret it offers you.
Get those fears and thoughts under control, man. You’ll be much happier.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org