A reader sent me an email and asked me if I would ever date someone with an incurable STD. She had recently been diagnosed with the HSV virus (that’s herpes, y’all), and wanted my answer to be honest and not “PC.” So here it is goes, my unvarnished, gut reaction to the question: No, I would not date someone with an incurable STD.Like all things having to do with love and sex and relationships, so much depends on the timing. If we’re talking about a first date, I imagine the scenario would go something like this:
ME: “What are you going to get for a starter?”
YOU: “Nachos and I have herpes.”
ME: “Oh, look. My dead grandmother is calling me. It’s a miracle. Gotta go!”
So that’s my honest answer, and I’m a little ashamed of it. Because I should know better, considering how I spent the early ’90s, the height of AIDS hysteria, in high school. That was a grim time, and the plague seemed nearly apocalyptic, especially since so many ignorant people told so many terrified people you could catch it from toilet seats or Broadway musicals. It remains a haunting chapter in my life, as I watched a mentor and friend slowly succumb to a Rolodex of illnesses and complications related to the disease. What a terrible, grisly way to go.
Of course, today, a fleet of powerful pharmaceuticals has rendered HIV less of a death sentence, and more of a chronic illness — for those who can afford the very expensive drugs, of course. Just know this: Even though that time period is now history, it should never be forgotten. Many wonderful people faced their death bravely, and many more hearts were ground into hamburger. The mark on my adolescent mind was indelible, and in college I signed up to be a safe-sex peer counselor.
One thing I was taught to teach was to get tested for HIV immediately if you contracted one of those minor STDs like crabs or Chlamydia. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. I bundled all of those maladies into one sack of personal fear and neurosis and heaved it onto my back, waddling around like a finger-wagging Santa Claus, doling out condoms and borderline paranoid advice on how to have sex safely. I remember telling one college girlfriend that we should “double bag” it before sex. Which meant wearing two condoms at once. I might as well have worn a Firestone tire. In the intervening years, I’ve … lightened up.
So I should know better. And I do. Herpes is extremely common, and by practicing safe sex, and being extra careful during outbreaks, it can be an initial non-issue. Popular prescription drugs, if taken properly, can further suppress symptoms. But we’re not talking about a rational response to an inconvenient and manageable affliction. We’re talking about the stigma attached. Why is it that all of the names for STDs sound so gross? Maybe if herpes were called “the ouchies” or “tender Skittles,” it wouldn’t freak us out so much. What herpes needs is a good re-branding. “Break out! With the herpz!”
Women bear an unfair burden when it comes to STDs. I remember a considerably older degenerate at a southern dive bar taking me under his tattooed wing one night and bellowing, “You’re not a man unless you’ve had the Clap three times!” All I could think was, “Sucks if you’re stuck at two?” Granted, he was squarely from another era, and I don’t know any dude who’d be proud of catching a “social disease,” but they wouldn’t be as hard on themselves as they would a woman. Because, of course, a woman with an STD is a slut. The world is full of people who’ve had multiple sexual partners and never contracted squat. And it’s also full of people who’ve had just a couple and caught a case of bad luck. The reader who sent me her question mentioned that there were men in her life who called her a “diseased slut” or a “disgusting ho.” The big brother in me wants to offer her my foot on their throat, but chances are they’re just stupid and out of their emotional depths — clearly between the ages of 15 and 45. Here’s the thing: Those boys would have probably revealed to her their propensity for prejudice and verbal abuse sooner or later, whether she had an STD or not. Good riddance, and all the best to them in their little lives.
The beginning of love is a shovel to the face. It finds you whether you are looking or not. One moment, you’re having a quiet beer and watching a baseball game. The next moment, you’re talking about The Economist, singing Oasis, and wishing you could be keychain-sized so you could fit in her pocket. And maybe, just maybe, your orbits sync up, and gravity takes over. It’s an imperfect science. This could happen; this could not happen. It’s largely out of your control, so it’s wise not to fool yourself into thinking you have any control over it. Sometimes you have to be with someone because life is unfair like that. May we all be that unlucky. So here’s a better question: Could I love someone with a STD?