Dropping the H Bomb

Talking honestly and earnestly about safer sex and STDs is so last century. And we don’t just mean among gay men on crystal-meth-infused barebacking benders. We’re talking about people who took notes in sex-ed class, whose drug intake consists of a few martinis on Friday night, who actually use condoms. You know, people who probably have one of the more au courant viral Hs: HPV (the human papillomavirus) or herpes.

Sex with a new partner has always been a calculated risk, deliberated in the blink of Malcolm Gladwell’s eye, but the way we calculate that risk is changing. Herpes and (perhaps more so) HPV are increasingly regarded as (1) a post-condom, mid-relationship confession, and (2) a fact of having a sex life. The lightning-quick, internal pre-sex checklist now goes something like this: I’m horny; I don’t see anything on me or my partner; we’ll use a condom. Given that, the rationalization continues, talking about my STD right now would only lead to embarrassment, rejection, or a serious buzz-kill.

“There’s a tiny chance that I could give someone herpes if I don’t have a sore but we do use a condom,” explains Ron, 33, a financial consultant who was diagnosed with genital herpes about five years ago. “But there’s a seriously major chance that I’ll be going home with my right hand if I utter the phrase ‘asymptomatic viral shedding’ right after asking her in for coffee.” Ron saves the Big H for what he calls the “trifecta” talk: Let’s be exclusive, let’s not use condoms anymore, and, by the way, I have genital herpes.

Doctors estimate that one in four Americans has genital herpes, and up to 90 percent of them don’t know it. With about 1.6 million new infections every year, 40 percent of all men and half of all women could be infected by 2025. And it is estimated that, at some point in their lives, 75 percent of women and men will be infected with genital HPV. Many of them will never show symptoms.

HPV is so pervasive, in fact, that some doctors condone keeping quiet. More than a few of our female friends have been told by their gynecologists that HPV is just not worth the trouble of bringing up.

Then there’s the willful ignorance that makes it easier for some to gloss over the facts for a moment of bliss. One overly affectionate friend of ours, a sophisticated 37-year-old book editor, used to kiss people hello on the lips with cold sores sprouting, never realizing he was probably passing on the virus (we shudder to think what he did downtown with his lady friends).

Rationalizations, ignorance, and a doctor’s note all combine to create a culture of concealment—at least early on in sexual relationships. It’s true, both Hs are not that big a deal, especially when you consider how prevalent and manageable they are today. But not talking about them makes them a big deal. If every person with an STD just came out and admitted it, the announcement would be practically trite. “Yeah, yeah,” your new crush might respond. “Don’t we all?”

There are some determined brave ones, though. A few years ago, Marie, a 29-year-old seventh-grade teacher, sought our advice after being diagnosed with HPV: “I thought my sex life was over,” she recalls. “The guy I was with when I first found a wart said, ‘I don’t know what you’ve done in your past, but I’ve only ever been in relationships, so I know this didn’t come from me.’ ” (For the record, it’s the number of sexual partners and the frequency of sexual activity with them that affects your risk.)

Despite this cold reception from her now-ex and the “free pass” to keep mum that she got from two different OB/GYNs, Marie has since told every new partner before getting naked with them, as we recommended. She’d rather lose a few casual flings here and there than risk losing a guy months into a relationship because he feels betrayed by her dishonesty. “I’m also hoping that by my coming clean,” Marie explains, “a prospective partner will be honest with me about his history.”

She delivers a memorized speech (“so I won’t stumble over my words, so I sound calm and confident”) and then hopes that her one-man audience sticks around to get laid. So far, they all have.

It’s a sign that her confessional style might be catching on. One guy made self-deprecating jokes to put her at ease: “You’re worried about me rejecting you? What about when I get attached and you dump me in six months?”

It’s not that hard to fess up. Here, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Em: I’ve got oral herpes. Big whoop.
Lo: I’ve got HPV. BFD.

Em & Lo are the authors of The Big Bang and Sex Etiquette . Amy Sohn is on maternity leave.

Dropping the H Bomb