Every month in Sex at Our Age, award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers your questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Nothing is out of bounds! To send your questions directly to Joan, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am a 70-year-old divorced woman with genital herpes. I take acyclovir and have no outward symptoms, but the herpes is getting in the way of my having a relationship.
I have no idea how I became infected. I’d never had an outbreak before a “boil” developed on my backside 15 years ago, shortly after my husband of 20 years and I divorced. At that time, my doctor told me I had genital herpes. I was monogamous during my marriage (I can’t vouch for my husband) and had no partners between our divorce and the diagnosis. I’ve been taking acyclovir daily since that doctor visit and have never had an outbreak. If I try to stop taking it, I get a tingling feeling on my right buttock where the original outbreak occurred.
Since then, I’ve met two man I’ve liked, but eventually both rejected me because they couldn’t get past the fact that I have herpes. I feel awful about myself and I’m very sad to think I’ll never have an intimate partner in my life.
I met the first man through an online dating site. When I told him about the herpes after a few dates and before we became intimate, he said he’d been tested for STDs and wasn’t concerned. Then a couple of years after we started being sexual- including oral sex-he got a sore on his lip. The doctor said it was herpes. About six months later, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and started treatments that made having intercourse impossible—but he would no longer have oral sex with me, either. Then he decided the prostate cancer was caused by his herpes, and he broke up with me.
The other man was a widower I’d known for years. I told him I had genital herpes and that he should use a condom. We tried that, but he hated condoms and was unhappy with our sex life because of that. He wouldn’t engage in oral sex with me because he was afraid of herpes. I was head over heels in love with him, but couldn’t reassure him that I wasn’t Typhoid Mary. He left, too.
At this point, I’m very wary of being honest about my herpes. I’m depressed about feeling I can’t be physically intimate with anyone ever again. Any advice? —Damaged Goods
Joan Price Responds
Thank you for sharing your story. You do not need to be celibate for the rest of your life because of herpes. Knowing and communicating the facts about the virus and how it is and isn’t transmitted will help you navigate dating.
Herpes is very common. About one in five Americans has genital herpes, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that over 80% of those who have it don’t know they’re infected. You might have carried the virus for decades before your first and only outbreak. Your husband or a partner before your marriage might have transmitted it to you without ever knowing they were carrying the virus. Don’t assume that your husband was unfaithful – if he had herpes, he might have gotten it before you met.
Herpes is very common, and so is the tendency to feel awful about having it. But you shouldn’t see yourself as damaged goods. Sex educator Ashley Manta writes, “I was rejected countless times. It got to the point that I started disclosing on the first date just to get it over with. My reasoning was at least if (and when) he rejected me, at least we would have only wasted one date.” She came to realize that she was giving into “all those feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and depression … I felt broken, worthless, and alone.” Read how she emerged from what she calls “the yuck.”
Instead, be proactive. Arm yourself with information to share with your dates, insist that the men you date practice safe sex (and not just for their own benefit!) and consider dating sites for people with herpes.
Should You Disclose?
It’s not surprising that you’re starting to wonder whether you really have to disclose that you have herpes before becoming sexual with the men you date, but your decision so far to do so is the right one. Bad decision on the part of your dates to go without barrier protection even though they know you have herpes. They should not have blamed you or shamed you – they both made their own decisions not to use safer sex. I hope in the future you’ll meet men who understand that safer sex is not just necessary, it’s also pleasurable and sexy. (For more about safer sex for seniors, see this article on SeniorPlanet.org and this on my blog.
Facts About Herpes
Oral Herpes and Genital Herpes
As you may already know, there are two types of herpes. Type 1 (HSV-1) is the oral herpes that causes cold sores or fever blisters in and around the mouth. Type 2 (HSV-2) causes genital herpes. The relationship between them is confusing, because during oral sex, you can transmit oral herpes to the genitals, resulting in genital herpes, and genital herpes can be transmitted to the mouth, resulting in oral herpes. Oral herpes is so common that many of us get it as children from being kissed by relatives. Experts estimate that at least one in two, and possibly 80% of adults have oral herpes.
You can prevent the transmission by using condoms for fellatio and “dental dams” (aka “sex dams”) for cunnilingus. These dams are latex or nitrile squares or rectangles placed over the vulva and secured with your or your partner’s hands. They transmit sensation and body heat well.
Antiviral suppressive therapy and transmission of genital herpes
Although there’s no cure for herpes, you’ve seen that taking the antiviral medication acyclovir can suppress outbreaks. I asked pharmacist Paul Roberts about the drugs’ effects on transmission: “Taking antiviral suppressive therapy daily, such as acyclovir or Valtrex,” he told me, “has been found to be very effective in preventing transmission. Long-term adverse effects doing this are rare, even after years. If you have outbreaks on one medication, you may want to switch to another.”
The medication decreases the risk of transmission by suppressing outbreaks, but you can transmit herpes even without an outbreak. That’s why it’s important to use a condom. Although neither strategy is perfect on its own, the combination offers the most protection.
Herpes and prostate cancer
Your date who was diagnosed with prostate cancer was wrong to blame this on you. Some studies indicate that there might be a link between herpes infection and prostate cancer, but the evidence is not strong yet and, in any case, does not prove that the herpes caused the cancer—there might just be an indirect link. Prostate cancer has multiple causes, so odds are that his cancer developed for other reasons. In any case, six months is far too short a time to associate his prostate cancer with contracting herpes. We don’t even know that he got herpes from you – he might have been harboring the virus for years.
Dating Sites for People with Herpes
Did you know that there are several online dating sites specifically for people with herpes? These sites attract far fewer people than the larger dating sites, but they might be a good next step to meet people who have herpes and know that it’s not an impediment to dating. Even if you don’t meet someone you want to be intimate with, you’ll meet people who’ve been dating with herpes and are willing to share their experiences with you. It may help you feel less isolated. One word of caution: Some users of these sites report that the lack of educational resources and the panicked communications do little more than segregate people with herpes. Evaluate the sites before joining and read “Dating Sites for People with Herpes Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up to Be.”
Continue to meet new people and disclose your herpes status when you think a relationship might get sexual, and don’t hide because of these two bad experiences. May you find joy and intimacy.
- Oh Joy Sex Toy All about herpes, in comic book form
- Genital Herpes Guide From WebMD
- Herpes facts
- HerpesLife Support forum, informational blog, videos and lifestyle guides (some require payment).
- Dating with Herpes: Your 10-Step Guide From Refinery 29
- Sex educator Ashley Manta writes and speaks about herpes and dating challenges
Thanks to sex educator Ashley Manta, pharmacist Paul Roberts, and medical anthropologist Mac Marshall for their suggestions and insights.
Would you like to see more questions and answers? See all of Joan’s advice in Sex @ Our Age.
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Joan Price is the author of several books including “The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50” and the award-winning self-help book “Naked at Our Age.” Visit Joan’s blog, “Naked at Our Age” and her Facebook page. For senior sex news, tips, event and webinar announcements, and special offers, join Joan’s mailing list.