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Heavy Meddle: I Have Herpes And An Open Relationship

A letter writer struggles with the ethics of what to disclose and when. (Elizabeth Tsung /Unsplash)MoreCloseclosemore
A letter writer struggles with the ethics of what to disclose and when. (Elizabeth Tsung /Unsplash)

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Hi Steve,

My partner and I are in our 20s and have been together for a few years, and it’s the best relationship of my life: mutually healthy, supportive and loving. Our communication is open and honest. In fact, our communication isn’t the only thing that’s open — our relationship is, too. (I consider myself poly and am looking for other meaningful relationships; he considers himself in an open relationship and seeks a more casual friends-with-benefits situation.)

In fact, our communication isn’t the only thing that’s open -- our relationship is, too.

It’s a little harder to find people to date than when I was single, because I have a partner and announce it before dates. My boyfriend has customarily done the same, so as not to waste the time of anyone looking for something monogamous. Lately he’s been wondering if it’s better to announce his relationship status after meeting someone, some time on the first date, to give girls a chance to get to know him before they write him off completely. I’m not sure that’s ethical; it seems like a bit of a bait-and-switch.

However, I might be hypocritical. I have Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and got it from a previous monogamous boyfriend, with whom I always had safe sex. I have not given it to my partner and I get tested frequently. I usually tell potential sex partners somewhere between the second and third date if I see potential for a relationship. I give a matter-of-fact disclosure and provide time for them to weigh the risks against the relationship, and so far they’ve all been scared away. A lot of the support forums say that this is the better time to disclose, because although somewhere around one in three people have HSV, the stigma persists, and if we announced upfront, we’d never get dates!

So: Is it unethical to wait until someone likes me (but hasn’t slept with me, of course) to announce my sexually transmitted infection (STI) status, or for my partner to mention that I exist? Is it unethical for us to date at all, given the risk of giving herpes to someone else?

Best,
Poly, Partnered and Positive

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Dear Triple P,

If only Jane Austen had written about this stuff!

You’re asking two distinct questions here, so I’ll handle them separately. But the guiding principle is the same in any kind of courtship scenario: You can’t build an open and honest relationship if you’re deceitful and/or withholding. Let’s keep that in mind as a baseline, especially because you and your partner are bringing what I’ll call “complicating circumstances” into any potential new relationship.

In your case, I don’t feel it’s unethical to wait a few dates in to disclose your herpes. Your HSV is, in fact, a part of your private medical history. It’s not something you should feel compelled to share until you trust the person in question, especially in this age of internet over sharing and gossip. That said, the sooner you tell a potential lover the better — for both of you. Because it sounds like you don’t just want to enjoy a few casual dates; you want to find a “meaningful” relationship. That’s going to be more of a challenge when you already have a primary partner, and an STI. But this is the very reason to be forthright. Best not to waste your time, energy and hopes, on someone for whom these circumstances are a deal breaker.

In the case of your boyfriend, there’s no clear-cut ethical rule here, either. It is a different circumstance, because a private medical condition isn’t the same as a committed relationship that is presumably public. Of course, as you duly note, there is the risk that your partner will contract HSV from you, and one thing you don’t mention in your letter is whether he is being tested regularly. I assume he is, because you note that he hasn’t contracted HSV. (And that testing is crucial, because HSV can be asymptomatic.)

There’s also a difference in motive here. You’re interested in a meaningful relationship, while he’s focused on presumably shorter-term “friends-with-benefits” scenarios. In a sense, this may lower the stakes for your boyfriend, in terms of trust and ethical considerations. He may feel more comfortable not mentioning you for a few dates. But that doesn’t mean you feel comfortable with him keeping you a secret.

That’s what I’d be paying attention to here. When you open up a relationship, you’re agreeing to the possibility that your partner will pursue other romantic engagements. This brings with it all sorts of fraught dynamics. What’s most important amid all of this is that you’re honest with yourself about how you feel, and with each other.

Come to think of it, this is pretty much the lesson that all Jane Austen novels impart.

Your final question is whether it’s unethical for either of you to date others, given that you have HSV. Of course not! You have a right to date others and to become physically intimate with them, so long as you let them know of your HSV before they might be at risk, and practice safe sex.

This applies to all 45 million Americans who have HSV, which amounts to one of five of us.

Good luck!

Steve

Author's note: As noted, 20 percent of adult Americans have HSV, which means some of you reading this column. A smaller but still significant percentage of you are polyamorous. It would be so nice to get perspective from you all on PPP’s situation. Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. And please send along a letter to Heavy Meddle, if you haven’t. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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