Having herpes is like having a guardian angel, one who does the wise thing for you, when desire won’t.
Some months ago, I got caught up in a zeitgeisty dinner conversation with a group of artists and writers. The leading question was: Were people still doing it on the first date, or were they waiting awhile? The gist of the answers was that our contemporaries had become more conservative about sexual encounters. Like a baleful beggar at a feast, I commented that the new restraint probably had something to do with sexually-transmitted disease.
The conversation immediately turned to the subject of herpes–the new leprosy, the late twentieth century’s most celebrated non-life-threatening disease. Because I have herpes, my interest–and my discomfort–were acute. (Nothing like finding out what people really think about your kind when they don’t know what kind you are.) Everyone by now has heard the herpes jokes: What’s the difference between love and herpes? Herpes lasts forever. What’s the cure for herpes? Extra-strength Tylenol; a leap from the bridge. Are celibacy or suicide the two basic options for the herpes victim? Well, it depends on who you read, and who you’re with, and what vantage point you take. Time magazine’s sensational herpes cover story of a few years ago was a convincing argument for the end-it-all approach.
Over the decade that I’ve had herpes, my attitudes have traveled from isolation and despair to resignation and gratitude, with a few shades of indifference between. When my spiritual condition is fair, and my mystic acceptance quotient high, I refer to my complaint as Saint Herpes; the virus protects me from a lot of amorous pratfalls that my waking ego is willing to take. (Not that there’s anything wrong with falling in love and doing all the beautiful and dumb things that eras commands, but the wear and tear does smart.) Even if this is a masterpiece of rationalization, it seems preferable to pathetic self-pity, an attitude that also afflicts this herpes person from time to time. When you have a lemon, make lemonade: I consider the attractions of chastity, a practice quite different from the one that brought me to this pass.
I knowingly, voluntarily exposed myself to herpes a few years before the hullabaloo, before the disease became a social fetish and scarlet letter conferring instant pariah-dom. So, because I didn’t want not to sleep with this person, who had done the decent thing and informed me of the risk, I got herpes. Less was known about it then, and far less was said. Fewer people had it, but the epidemic was getting underway. That was a time when I slept with people for love and fun, for the sake of sleeping with them; slept with them for the joy of sex itself, or for lack of enough gumption to say no. I was in my twenties, it was the seventies, and abundant sexual encounter seemed like my birthright.
And today, as far as I’m concerned, that is still a fair belief. You make love or you don’t, you connect with your partner or you don’t. Sex is special, sex has overarching power, and sex is free. Every good thing has drawbacks, though, and so does the enthusiastic exercise of sexual freedom. Reality is that the more partners you have, the greater the possibility that you will contract a sexually-transmitted disease, and/or get your heart broken, and/or learn an incredible amount of good and intimate truth in your lovemaking, the kind of truth that is only revealed in sex. No blame. Sexually-transmitted disease is a possible consequence, not a punishment. Living is full of consequences, and it binds us to change. So this is no repentant sinner talking, no moral majoritarian argument against free love, no case for herpes as an agent of divine retribution for extramarital sex. Mindful or mindless, caring or careless, the mode of sex makes no difference to evolution or eternity: It always has meaning.
When the disease showed up, I was dismayed, but only briefly. I couldn’t appreciate then that herpes would some day become a factor in changing me from one kind of person into another.
For years, my herpes and I were safely out of public commerce in the confines of sequential monogamy with two fellow herpes victims. (The fact that in each case we had the disease in common was coincidence–it wasn’t even something we thought to discuss.) It was no big issue in either relationship. In one, it mandated periods of abstinence; that was a strain, but not the one that sundered the tie. It precluded the possibility of sexually reconciling differences, of achieving the cloture that lovemaking can bring. Herpes between friends is not nothing, but the decision to risk it is behind you, and the experience of the disease has its container of intimacy: You don’t have to go it alone. The advantage of herpetic monogamy is that you can get past the obsession with the disease and into knowing and delighting in the presence of another human as person, not vector. Within a relationship or out, the worst thing about herpes is that there are times when you want to make love but can’t. Desire goes ungratified (as it often does in the uninfected).
Relationships tend to pass. It falls to most of us to leave the safety of monogamy for the terrors of dating, if only for a short time on the rebound. It was when my last monogamous relationship ended that herpes emerged to add to those terrors and to start reordering my life.
On my mad dash to the first available bed, my long-dormant herpes kicked up, like nemesis, a virus with perfect timing. I began to feel vague inklings of herpes (the “pro-drome”) hours before the possibility of lovemaking became clear. Uncertain moral actor that I am, I almost didn’t tell the man. I wasn’t sure whether those vague twinges could infect anyone else (medical opinion is divided on that point). Besides, I was sex-crazed by that post-parting fear that I would never know love again. Fortunately, superego whupped libido, and God made me speak up. Instead of winning the man’s ardor with my late-breaking honesty, I was forced to cope with his honest aversion to contracting herpes. We cried about it together. He hoped we could be friends; if mere friends would be too much of a strain on my makeup, well then, so be it in sadness. (Thus the disease effects a role reversal: The gentleman pleading, “Can’t we just be friends?”) I had nothing to lose, so we became friends. Friends with a constant taint of anger and resentment on my part. Whatever else that turning point in the relationship signaled, that nice fellow’s sensible withstanding of my allures registered as rejection. At once I was stripped of the power of sexual sorcery. It was a heavy blow to the pride.
Having herpes does tend to make one undesirable (except, perhaps, to a fellow-sufferer). After I had reckoned with this new reality, I had to begin to place my faith in my intrinsic worth, quite apart from gender and relationship. Identity can deepen in crisis. Part of the herpes educational program was discovering that there is life after rejection.