Herpes is the general term for the Herpes Simplex Virus, Types 1 and 2. Herpes is characterized by painful blisters that turn into sores on the genitals or the mouth, and is highly contagious. It is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Unfortunately, the virus does not have a cure, and it can stay in the body indefinitely, but so does chicken pox, and no one makes a huge fuss about being in a sexual relationship with someone who has had chicken pox! Outbreaks do lessen over the course of time, and there is at least one medication that is available (through prescription) to help prevent outbreaks, and there is a vaccine that is being developed in Europe. It is required, by law, that a person who knows he or she is infected with Herpes to tell any potential sexual partners, before the act of sex has occurred.
Although Herpes can be incredibly embarrassing, on the spectrum of STIs, it really isn’t that big of a deal. Recent studies have shown that at least one in six of the population of the United States has a form of Herpes, and in Europe the numbers are even higher. From what I understand, in some European countries, Herpes is viewed much the same way as the common cold. It is an unfortunate affliction, and one should take care to not transmit the virus, but it does not reflect on the moral character or intelligence of the afflicted.
If you think that you may have contracted Herpes from a sexual partner, the best course of action is to make an appointment with your doctor to confirm that infection, and then to contact your previous sexual partners. It is very common for someone to have an infection, and to have no symptoms of the infection. This is actually more true for males than it is for females.
Safer Sex to Prevent Transmission
The best way to prevent the transmission of Herpes between sex partners is to take care to avoid sexual contact during an outbreak, and to use a barrier method (such as a condom or a dental dam) in-between those times. This is not a guaranteed way to prevent transmission, because there is still the possibility of skin-to-skin contact, but it does lessen the risk. A person who has contracted Herpes could be asymptomatically shedding the virus (meaning they could be contagious without any outward signs), but they are not always contagious.
If you are told by a current or potential sexual partner that they have Herpes, don’t freak out. The best reaction to this information is compassion. They have given you information that is potentially embarrassing to them, and it is your duty as a good sex partner to not make them feel bad. Acknowledging the information by saying “thank you for telling me that”, a shrug, and suggesting other types of sexual intimacy that do not involve the exchange of bodily fluids or direct skin-to-skin contact with the infected area is a response that will make your partner feel the less uncomfortable. You should never share this very personal and private information with another person as gossip. That would be incredibly rude and insensitive.
There are other types of sexual intimacy that are less likely to transmit the virus, such as mutual masturbation, and manual stimulation of the other partner. It is best to ensure that if there is an emission of fluids from the infected partner, the other partner is careful to immediately wash any skin that has touched the fluids and to avoid the fluids touching a moist area of the body, such as the eyes, the mouth or the genitals. This will also lessen the risk of transmission.
The Bottom Line
Herpes is very common, and is not necessarily a deal-breaker for sexual contact. The choice is up to you as to whether or not to engage in sexual activity with someone who has said they are infected. If your potential partner is a responsible person, they will respect your decision either way.
Edit: “A person who has contracted Herpes is always slightly contagious, whether or not there is an outbreak that is evident.” is untrue. A person who has contracted Herpes could be asymptomatically shedding the virus, but they are not always contagious. Thanks to D for the correction.