Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Valinda Riggins Nwadike, MD, MPH
Reader Submitted Question:
I am in my 20’s, and I contracted HSV1 when I was a teenager. I had sexual contact with one male and had safe sex with another male, and both did not know I carried the virus then. I have struggled for the last few years with HSV1 but have a supportive family & boyfriend. I have also had counselling to help me deal with my worries about the virus. I worry about the past thinking I could have passed this virus on, and I wish I had the courage I have now to tell those guys that I had the virus. Both my mom, boyfriend, and counselor have said not to tell them because it is in the past, everyone makes mistakes, and everyone is allowed to be young and carefree. But I feel so guilty that I could have affected their lives, and I think they have a right to know. Is it worth dragging it all up and giving basically strangers such intimate information about myself? Even if I were to let them know, I can’t control how they choose to live the rest of their sexual lives. Has too much time passed?
You ask a really good question, and while I can’t tell you what to do, I can provide some additional perspective…
I’m inclined to say, though, since you’re asking me if you should tell past partners that you have a sexually transmitted infection and not necessarily taking the other folk’s advice, you already know what is the most ethical thing to do…
The most ethical approach is to tell anyone whom was exposed to the virus. This is the hardest thing to do, and that’s why a lot of people won’t tell past partners. However, before making up your mind, you should consider a couple of things:
Your chance of transmitting genital HSV1 to a male is relatively low, but there was still a chance. If they transmitted HSV1 to you genitally (like via oral sex), it’s also important they know the risk there and that it’s a relevant risk, because that knowledge could change the types of safer sex methods they incorporate in the future.
The two guys might not have HSV1, or they might have it, but the only way to know is if they get tested – it’s quite likely one or both of them already has HSV1 orally. It’s also quite common for someone to never experience noticeable symptoms (with all STDs), however, they are still able to transmit the infection to partners, and there’s no telling whether the newly infected partner will also remain asymptomatic.
If the Situation Were Reversed
The other way to look at this is if the situation were reversed… If they had sex with you, then they found out they had an infection long after you were together, but there was a chance they had it while you were intimate with one another, would you want them to contact you so you could get tested, get treated (where applicable), and then make sexual health choices accordingly?
Most people would answer a solemn ‘yes’ to that.
What will they do with the information?
You are totally right, though; there’s no way to know how they will take the information and what they will do with it going forward.
Will they be responsible about it and get tested, and then if they are positive for the same infection, will they disclose to past and future partners?
Those are the things you can’t control, but in telling them, you are empowering them to make their own choices. Even if they don’t wind up with HSV1 orally or genitally, the discussion you have with them might elicit safer sex practices and additional research that will only serve to help them and their future partners.
Why You’re Getting Conflicting Advice
If I had to guess, the reason your mother, boyfriend, and therapist have a different perspective is they are, naturally, a little biased.
Your mother and boyfriend don’t want you to have to experience any more emotional pain, and your therapist believes some of the responsibility lies with the guys, and it does.
Everyone should be taking responsibility for their sexual health – testing, safer sex methods, and the like. However, most people do not practice comprehensive safer sex, most don’t think an infection is likely or could happen to them, and most just aren’t really aware of the risks all sexual activity poses.
Disclosing You Have a Sexually Transmitted Infection is Hard
I understand, too, why you’re asking me. It’s a really tough thing to do – it can feel horribly embarrassing, and the prospect of the different kinds of reactions your previous partners might have is frightening, to say the least.
The good news is, you could choose to disclose to them anonymously. There are a couple of awesome apps that help you do it without having to identify yourself.
- Don’t Spread It (U.S., email and text-based)
- InSPOT (U.S., e-card based)
- Time2Test.org (U.S., ecards)
- So They Can Know (U.S., email-based)
- Let Them Know (Australia, email and text-based)
- The Drama Downunder (Australia, e-card and text-based)
- GMFA’s Online Partner Notification Service (UK, email-based, text-based)
Most people don’t do the most ethical thing in these situations, and that’s one of the many reasons why STDs are so prevalent. Usually, the most ethical approach is the most difficult – if it were easy, there wouldn’t be ethical dilemmas. Touche’, right?
Anyhow, it’s up to you to decide what you think is best based on what kind of impact that knowledge might have on the number of folks potentially affected (past partners and their past and present partners alike).
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Did you try this out – how’d it go? Do you have some additional advice to offer? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments sections below!
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