Kurt, a twenty-four-year-old Arizona man with HPV, lives in the kind of community where everybody knows everybody — a fact that makes dating with a sexually transmitted infection difficult. "Women have been interested in me, but I’ve just blown them off, even when I’ve been extremely interested," he says. "These women are always within my circles, and the possibility of people close to me finding out scares me to no end."
So he turned to dating websites that cater specifically to people with STIs. "It gets the monkey off your back right away," he says. "I can feel comfortable getting to know someone and not be thinking, ‘How am I going to tell her?"
Problem is, Kurt hasn’t experienced this liberation. He hasn’t met anyone he likes through these services, and hasn’t had sex — or even a date — in several years.
Dating websites for people with the same STI seem like a natural niche, one that includes PositiveSingles.com, H-Date.com and the genre’s warhorse, MPwH.net (Meet People with Herpes), which was founded in 1997 and has more than 70,000 active members. Newcomer PositiveFriends.com has a photo-editing application that allows you to upload photos which obscure your identity, zooming in on just your tattoo or your eyes. Another new site, VDdate.com, feels a bit rickety with its use of outdated terminology like "venereal disease," but its presence reinforces the point: many STI sufferers are opting out of the general singles population and sticking to their own private dating pool.
Or ghetto, depending on who you’re talking to. "Creating specific internet-dating sites for persons with STDs tends to perpetuate stigma by separating them from the general population," says Jeffrey D. Klausner, M.D., director of STD Prevention and Control Services at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. "This isolation suggests that those persons are different and not normal, requiring exceptional means to meet other partners."
"Your self-worth is taken the minute you sign up for one of those sites. You’re reduced to believing that you’re confined to finding a mate afflicted with the same STI as you," says John Jackson, who co-founded the social-networking site Club462.com as an alternative to the dating-by-niche approach; it is openly inclusive of people with STIs. "The reality is that most people will accept you the way you are, once they know you," he adds, citing three cases of negative-positive romance sparked on his site.
This is not always the case. Jackson recalls showing his brother an STI-dating site as an example of what he didn’t want to create. His brother’s response: "I guess infected skanks need a place to go, too."
We’re supposedly living in an era of sexual enlightenment — BDSM has become pedestrian, furries garner yawns. Yet many people with sexually transmitted infections still feel like members of a second-class citizenry. Blame it on our obsession with health and cleanliness: for many people, a significant other with herpes doesn’t mesh with the ideal yoga-and-pomegranate lifestyle. Unlike most other illnesses, STIs are regarded as distasteful, even disgraceful.
This, even though STIs are more common than ever. Calling their spread a "hidden epidemic," the CDC estimates there are 18.9 million new infections each year. At least half of the sexually active population will contract HPV at some point; eighty percent of women will have it by age fifty. Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is at 1.6 million new cases a year: one in five adults, whether they know it or not, has herpes right now. After a precipitous drop, HIV diagnoses have been climbing slightly since 2001. It’s estimated that nearly half a million Americans are living with HIV or AIDS.
And these are just the people who know what they’ve got — viral STIs are sometimes asymptomatic and frequently go undiagnosed. Statistically, your date is more likely to carry a sexually transmitted infection than to share your astrological sign.
You’d think the sheer magnitude of the epidemic would serve to defuse the associated shame, but the stigma surrounding STIs remains virulent and pervasive. They are, after all, about sex — stereotypically, about casual, unprotected sex. They’re also, stereotypically, about hideous sores that bloom where the sun doesn’t shine. In a survey conducted for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, a majority of respondents said they wouldn’t date someone with herpes, and more than a quarter said herpes held more stigma than HIV.
"If someone I met online told me they had an STD, I’d be like, ‘Yuck,’" says Katie, thirty-seven, of Austin, Texas. "And I have herpes."
So it’s not hard to see why, for many people, STI-dating sites are a godsend. "You already know that that person has herpes, so no fretting over when to bring it up," says Betsy O’Rourke, thirty-nine, a pediatric nurse and herpes-patient advocate who is herself a herpes carrier and user of both STI and mainstream dating sites. "There’s no wondering if it’s going to be a dealbreaker for them. You can relax about that part and focus instead on finding out what’s wrong with them," she laughs. That big reveal is a big, big issue, judging from the message-board topics at H-Date.com: "When should I tell?"; "Will they flip and run away?"; "What are your chances with a non-herpster?"
Those community features can inject a sense of normalcy into the dating process. "There are people there who understand," says Jodi Matthews, owner of Antopia, the parent company of MPwH.net and its sister sites. "You see normal, everyday people. They have herpes, and they’re having fun. You realize, ‘My diagnosis is manageable. I can have fun, I can have a meaningful, productive, loving life.’ It’s a place where herpes is not an issue anymore. It’s home."
But do these dating services imply, as Dr. Klausner believes, that people with STIs should date only amongst themselves? Or at least, that they’re destined to be seen as attractive only to other people with an illness?
"We talked about this long before we launched," says Michael Hummell, founder of PositiveFriends.com. "We decided that it’s very similar to JDate. Is JDate relegating Jews to only date other Jews? No. It’s a place where people have something in common and are able to relate to each other."
Jodi Matthews, the owner of Antopia, uses a similar analogy: "If someone goes to a dating site for people with dogs, does that reinforce the thought that people with dogs should only date other people with dogs? No. It’s just a common denominator."
But there’s an obvious difference. HPV is not a hobby; JDate isn’t thriving because of anti-Semitism. Jews and dog owners don’t hesitate to put their photos on their profiles — or if they do, it’s not because they observe Passover or own a puggle. "I have tried using almost every STD-dating site I could find, but with no success," says Kurt from Arizona. "I don’t post a picture for fear of being recognized, though I know how foolish that is. If I posted a picture, I could probably get a date. But the fear stops me." In other words, most niche dating sites aren’t seen as shelters from shame and persecution.
At least they’re not in New York, where a Gentile dating a Jew is as controversial as an American professing a love of French culture. Hummel points out that in certain sections of the Heartland, JDate might be used similarly to the STI-dating sites — as a way to avoid an awkward conversation. "I would suggest that outside of the major U.S. cities there still exists a stigma for being Jewish. Even here in Michigan, I’ve had to explain what it means to be a Jew, and why I’m ‘not wearing the funny little hat,’" she says. If we don’t chastise Jews in small-minded communities for using JDate, why should we look down upon the notion of an isolated online dating world for STI sufferers?
Not everyone buys this argument. "I’ve heard many people say they think they’re only ‘allowed’ to date within their STD. Many say that before they got infected, they wouldn’t have thought of dating someone with an STD, so why would they expect someone else to date them now?" says thirty-nine-year-old A.J. from Portland, Maine, a moderator at The Original Herpes Home Page. "They’re buying into the stigma, and I think STD-dating sites contribute to these feelings. When someone gets diagnosed with HSV, HPV, or another STD, they go home and start searching the internet for information. One of the first things they see in the search results are all of the STD-dating sites. Right away, that can give the idea that a person with an STD is only supposed to date within that STD."
On a bad day, so can the community itself.
One reply to that H-Date query, "What are your chances with a non-herpster?" generated this blunt response: "THERE ARE NO CHANCES WITH A NON-HERPSTER." (For his part, A.J. thinks the chances are pretty good. "Having allergies affects my life more than herpes does. I have never been rejected because of herpes. One guy I told said, ‘Okay, great. Now can we go get pizza?’")
There’s also the danger that misconception can lead to additional infection. Epidemiologically speaking, just because you can skip The Talk doesn’t necessarily mean you can toss the condoms. Two HPV-positive partners still need to talk about which of the numerous strains each of them carries; if they’re not careful, one of them could wind up contracting something new. "Forgoing condoms because a couple is already infected with one STD will not protect from others," says Dr. Klausner of the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Fortunately, as common as herpes is, transmission is relatively rare under certain easily met conditions (anti-viral meds, condoms, no sex during outbreaks).
But perhaps the most mundane danger of using STI dating sites exclusively is not meeting anyone at all — at least, no one near your zip code. "Some people will be rejected because of their STI — that’s reality," says Terri Warren, a registered nurse and medical advisor for MPwH.com. "But you’re really narrowing the pool when you’re looking for someone who will both like your characteristics and tolerate your herpes. You can be mad at society for putting you in this ‘inferior’ category, but you have to be careful not to do the same thing to yourself."
To be fair, nowhere do these sites explicitly tell users that intra-STI dating is — or should be — their only option. Instead, they offer a "friendly place where a ‘private issue’ becomes a non-issue," says Matthews. "When someone walks into the chess club meeting in high school, they don’t have to say, ‘Hey, I’m interested in chess.’ In the same way, MPwH sets up the common ground. Instead of providing a ‘stigma-free zone,’ we focus on showing people that they’re not unusual or bad because they have a virus. Ninety percent of the discussion on our message boards is identical to what you’d see on a mainstream site — what do men think, what do women think, and other water-cooler conversations. People tell us all the time that herpes was the best thing that happened to them, because of the people they’ve met on MPwH."
For this reason, Terri Warren thinks STI dating services are ideal for newbies. "It can be very useful to put a profile in a place like MPwH.com when you’re still pretty fragile," she says. "But the longer you have herpes, the less focused you are on that as the characteristic that defines you. And then maybe you begin to date a wider range of people. I see it as a great way to build up your nerve and then step back into the general population."
It’s also worth debunking a final stereotype: not every STI sufferer is hunched miserably over a computer bemoaning his or her fate. For everyone with a string of rejection horror stories or a history of twice-shy celibacy, there’s someone with a healthy dose of antiviral perspective (someone like the numerous people I interviewed for this article who shrugged and said "yes" when asked if I could identify them by their full name).
Or someone like Melanie, thirty-nine, of Nashville: "If every person felt like they had to choose a dating site based on their ‘issue’ or shortcoming, can you imagine how ridiculous the online dating world would be?" she says. "It’s silly to think that people with low credit scores would be ushered to the ‘bad-credit dating site,’ or folks in recovery to the ‘former-addict dating site.’"
Melanie uses mainstream dating sites, where, she notes, she’s probably a much "safer" bet than people who say they’re disease-free but don’t get regular, comprehensive STI tests. "Bottom line: dating with an STD is not a big deal," she says. "At my age and with my life experience, herpes is nothing compared to relationship killers like debt, train-wreck ex-wives, infidelities, addictions and man boobs." n°
©2008 Lynn Harris and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Lynn Harris is author of the satirical novel Death By Chick Lit and its prequel, Miss Media, as well as co-creator of the award-winning website BreakupGirl.net. A regular contributor to Glamour, Salon, The New York Times, Babble and many others, she also writes the "Rabbi’s Wife" column for Nextbook.org. Visit her at LynnHarris.net.