The New Scarlet Letter

Herpes, an incurable virus, threatens to undo the sexual revolution

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When or whether to tell a date that you have herpes is a thorny matter. The only agreement these days is that you don't do the telling in bed. Says a Seattle secretary: "Never in the bedroom. You can't make management decisions there." Among sufferers, there is a feeling that women are more moral and honest than men about confessing to the disease. Says Fran Simon, a p.r. woman for a Philadelphia hospital: "I sure as hell wouldn't want it on my conscience, passing the disease on to somebody." But a quick admission amounts to a warning bell that scares off potential mates. "It was a dilemma every time I met someone new," says a Miami architect. "I used to rehearse telling people before a mirror." The architect is now happily married, though he has passed the disease on to his wife. A woman in Washington hid her herpes from her boyfriend for three years, and a New York man, possibly the world record holder, kept the news of his herpes sieges from his wife for ten years, mostly by inspired excuses at bedtime.

Psychotherapist Herships changed his mind about candor. He was involved with a woman while on vacation in Montreal. After he told her, "herpes became the focal point for our relationship. It made her anxious. It made me anxious. It diminished the experience." His solution: if you are not having an attack of herpes at the time, then don't tell, because the risk of transmission is low.

Many herpes sufferers think that it is not necessary to tell early in a relationship, or on one-night stands. The idea is to tell only when the relationship reaches a stage in which intimate matters come up naturally. Even then one may face rejection. A schoolteacher in Los Angeles developed herpes blisters on her genitals and legs a month before her scheduled wedding. Her fiancé, who had given her the disease, walked out. So did a later boyfriend. "Now I don't tell anybody, and I won't unless I'm having a serious relationship," she says. "What am I supposed to do, say 'How do you do, my name's Ilene, I have herpes'?" Surprisingly, many doctors counsel silence on the first encounter, mostly because their patients' psyches are shaky. "Due to the rejection some of my patients were getting," says New York Gynecologist Michael Truppin, "I finally began advising them not to tell initially. If they tell at first, the other person disappears." Says another doctor: "Every time you kiss someone good night, do you tell them you sometimes get cold sores on your mouth?"

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