Jeepers creepers

Pub date August 1, 2006

Dear Andrea:
My sister introduced me to one of her best friends. She’s a wonderful girl, smart and tough and funny and cute and accomplished. She’s traveled the world and is a field biologist. She’s exactly the kind of woman I dream of.
On our second date, if you can call it that, we spent nearly four days straight together. The more we’re together, the more we want to be together. So here’s the rub. One night my sis and I were talking about herpes, and she told me that this girl once had a genital fever blister. She also said (she’s a biologist too) that she had 95 percent confidence in the information.
Now clearly I can’t betray my sister’s confidence by just blurting out some blunt question, and I don’t much care for games. So I’ve offered to get tested and intimated that I would like her to as well. You know, as a way to let the evidence speak for itself, and nobody gets hurt. She demurred and said something like, “What for? We’ve already pretty much taken our chances.”
What do I do? I know my chances of picking herpes up without her being broken out are somewhat less than 10 percent, so I’m kind of playing the numbers right now, but I think she should have already been honest with me. Don’t you? I mean, that’s what a real relationship is founded on. And I do have to admit that it kind of nags at me, in the back of my head, but I’ve let it go now for three or four wonderful, adventurous weekends spent in and out of bed and in and out of all kinds of different sex positions. What’s to be done? I like her a lot. How do I keep the romance alive and figure out what I might be picking up all at the same time?
What Good Can Come of This?
Dear What:
You have no idea what you could be picking up, and neither, to be fair, does she. As many as 75 percent of people infected with HSV (herpes simplex virus) are asymptomatic or oblivious, so what makes you so special? You could have been infected for years and been merrily spreading it from blossom to blossom like a busy little bee, all unawares. Anybody could.
While I think many AIDS educators go way overboard insisting that everyone is equally at risk and every new contact should be assumed positive until proved otherwise, it’s surely true of herpes: Anyone could have it, and most of us do. I have no idea, for instance, whether I’m immune (I’ve never had the slightest hint of a cold sore or anything suspicious down there) or am simply another asymptomatic shedder, merrily spreading, et cetera.
Herpes is usually tested for with a swab at the site, but there are blood tests available for the asymptomatic and curious (the American Social Health Association, at, has all the information). Hardly anyone gets them, though — they’re expensive and inconvenient, and most people never even think about herpes unless they know they’ve been exposed or have developed symptoms. And I don’t blame them. What could be more “out of sight, out of mind” than something you’ve never seen and would rather not think about?
All this aside, a “genital fever blister” like your lady friend reputedly had that one time almost certainly counts as a symptom. While there are herpes-ish things that can pop up in or around the mouth — canker sores, pizza mouth — a blistery lesion on the genitals is overwhelmingly likely to be the real thing. (Of course, she added cheerfully, it could have been syphilis!)
It’s pretty common to have one outbreak and never have another, although as I’m sure you know, the herpes is not gone nor should it be forgotten. It is merely hiding. And an infection tends to get less virulent over time and is harder to spread from female to male (that 10 percent figure you quoted probably referred to transmission from male to female and to monogamous non-safe-sex-having couples over the course of a year, not a three-day one-night stand), though you could, I suppose, have been unlucky. In the absence of suddenly appearing sores, you’ll probably never know. Now what do you want to do about it?
Assuming the lady ever even had that outbreak (hey, my brother’s a biologist too; he’s way smart, but I defer to him on matters of marine ecology, not who’s had which kind of cooties and when), she did owe it to you to fess up. This does not absolve you from failing to think about, ask about, or take responsibility for avoiding infection yourself, though, does it? It takes two to tango, tangle, or transmit, after all.
If you don’t like games, don’t “intimate” things — ask them. If you want to know if you got infected, get a blood test. If you want the girl, call her. I don’t see where any of these are mutually exclusive.