Welcome to Seattle Dating Scene, featuring readers’ thoughts and stories about what it’s like to date in Seattle.

For our next feature, follow this promptHave an anniversary coming up this month? In under 500 words, tell us how you met your significant other, and send in your story and a photo.

By Thursday, Nov. 5, please email your submissions to: dating@seattletimes.com or submit them via Instagram direct message to @dating_in_seattle, and they may be printed in a future edition of The Mix.

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Ask Marina

In this edition of “Ask Marina,” dating columnist Marina Resto examines the everlasting stigma surrounding herpes and other sexually transmitted infections, and how in this pandemic year, thinking about health is more important than ever.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, certain words have been added to our daily vocabulary: Positive, negative, testing, stigma, protection, education. When it comes to dating, these concepts are pertinent to another aspect of health: sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Living through a pandemic has shown us how important it is to share our health status with the people we interact with, so why is it not as commonly practiced before we enter an intimate sexual relationship with another person?

Recently, a reader disclosed to me that they were diagnosed with herpes simplex virus (HSV), which made me realize how common, important and emotional dealing with this virus can be. It takes vulnerability to disclose this information to others, but it’s still crucial to communicate our sexual health with others with whom we’re intimate. As awkward or uncomfortable as it is to do so, it is part of the best practices for safer sex.

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I chatted with a physician, a sexologist, a podcast founder and a reader to get their perspectives, professional opinions and advice on STIs in general, and, more specifically, about the heavily stigmatized yet very common HSV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend screening for HSV-1 or HSV-2. But why not? According to Emily L. Depasse, a Philadelphia-based writer and sexologist, the following may be factors:

  1. The psychological impact of the diagnosis
  2. Many people already have HSV and don’t know they have it
  3. Research has not shown that knowing one’s herpes status will alter their sexual behavior

Psychological impact

The psychological impact of herpes is something that Courtney Brame is familiar with. Brame is the executive director of the podcast for Something Positive for Positive People, a nonprofit organization that provides mental health services for people who’ve experienced the trauma of an STI diagnosis. 

“I wandered my own herpes diagnosis for four to five years with no support and I didn’t realize how good I was handling it until I saw how bad others were handling it,” said Brame. “I’ve lost count of how many times others have expressed to me that they’ve wanted to end their own lives because they have herpes. I decided maybe these people just need to hear from someone who is having an average experience with this virus.” 

Education

One of the first steps in education is understanding and accepting symptoms. Many people are unaware they have herpes because many people don’t show symptoms and may never have an outbreak. “No matter how many times I try to educate around this topic, there is always one person who tries to argue that cold sores aren’t herpes,” said Depasse. 

Abstinence is often the main form of STI prevention emphasized in sex education. However, there is benefit to understanding and utilizing best practices to reduce transmission of STIs such as herpes. The way we learn about sex and the first conversations we have about sex should include all aspects of stigma, consent, body autonomy, boundaries and sexual health. Good sex education, Depasse says, “requires our egos to take a back seat and admit that what we think we know, or what we thought we knew, is not an accurate representation of what is in front of us.”

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Stigma and communication

One of the most important ways to break down the stigma around herpes is to just talk about it.

“There is inherent shame around sex, so an infection from sex is seen as avoidable and due to either poor hygiene or ‘sleeping around,’” says Dr. Evelin Dacker, a physician who specializes in sexual health and consent. She is known for her TED Talk, “STARS: A stimulating safer sex talk.”

“This is why language such as ‘clean’ is inherently shaming and sex-negative. Instead, use ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ as one would with any other test.”

Small changes, like removing common language used when discussing STIs, can help break stigmas.

Talking about sex without shame is the first step. How do we start doing this without it being awkward? Dacker uses the acronym STARS as a framework to start conversations you should have with potential sexual partners.

  • S: Sexual health and STI status
  • T: Turn-ons (what you enjoy)
  • A: Avoids (boundaries)
  • R: Relationship intentions
  • S: Safer sex etiquette

The stigma surrounding herpes and other STIs will never go away. But as a society, we can do a better job by educating ourselves and listening with compassion. 

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In a year where thinking about our health is more crucial than ever, and testing is becoming a regular part of our lives, it can be helpful to think about HSV like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Just like the coronavirus, you only need to come in contact with HSV once to pass it on/receive it. Condoms may not fully protect you from getting HSV, just as masks aren’t fully preventive either. And while we’re constantly learning more about COVID-19, we also don’t know everything about HSV. 

Before judging someone, making that herpes joke, or using shame to describe HSV or any STI … think about how you are contributing to the stigma around this infection. There is a person behind the infection, so when you are talking about it, remember to be kind, respectful and empathetic. Everyone is fighting their own battles — whether you know about them or not.

For more information, you can check out these resources: Something Positive for Positive People Podcast, STARS Ted Talk, @sexelducation on Instagram.

Here’s the monthly “Seattle Dating Scene” lineup:

  • First week: “Dating Question of the Month” — Readers respond to a dating-related question we’ve posed.
  • Second week: “Happy Anniversary, Tell Us Your Story” — Have an anniversary coming up this month? In under 500 words, tell us how you met your significant other, and send in your story and a photo.
  • Third week: “Best Date/Worst Date” — In under 250 words, tell us an anecdote from the best or worst date you’ve been on.
  • Fourth week: “Ask Marina” — Marina Resto, who runs the lively @Dating_in_Seattle Instagram account, answers reader questions about dating — or finds a special guest to answer the ones she can’t!
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