STD Etiquette

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in 2SexE on 30 July 1999

STD Etiquette

I was working my way up her thigh with my lips, just managing to get my tongue beneath the edge of her panties, when I felt her hand on my shoulder.

The touch didn’t say “stop,” exactly But it definitely wasn’t one of those let-me-brace-myself-against-your-shoulders-before-you-make-me-scream touches, either. I could tell she wanted to say something–probably something to do with the nature of our relationship, or another of the many contractual stipulations (binding or specifically non-binding) that seem to precede physical intimacy these days.

“I come with a few added surprises,” she said. Her face was turning a bit pink.

I rested my head between her breasts, to assure her of my sustained interest in her body no matter what she was about to say. She pushed me up a bit and off her. This was serious.

“Are you familiar with venereal warts?”

I learned that my lover-to-be had just been treated for two minuscule and probably viral lesions on her labia. They might grow back, but they probably wouldn’t, and they’re not really contagious, especially through a rubber, when they’re not showing, which–having been removed–they weren’t. She’d know after some tests in a few weeks. Or something like that.

I tried to be cool. My hermetically sealed suburban Jewish upbringing has left me somewhat germophobic (my mom still travels with a bottle of Lysol), but I’ve managed to contain my lingering obsession to bathroom hygiene and chicken preparation.

“It sounds like it’s cured,” I said. I didn’t want her to feel contaminated. “At least it’s not a life-long nuisance like herpes.”

Oops. It turns out that, like herpes, the virus behind genital warts is in perpetual stand-by mode. And, as long as we were on the subject, she had herpes, too, though she hadn’t had an outbreak for a few years. At least she possessed the sense and courage to tell me about everything from the start, rather than waiting until things between us got “serious.”

Of course these days, no matter how much latex shielding is employed, all sexual sports are serious business, requiring a high tolerance for danger. In terms of physical risk, we’ve gone from golf to ice hockey.

I avoided entering this rink longer than most. I wasn’t afraid of diseases so much as the women themselves. I just couldn’t tell a girl I found her attractive–it felt as though doing so would be an imposition on her otherwise trouble-free life. The few sexual relationships that did manage to penetrate my shield of insecurity followed weeks or even months of what could loosely be called courtship. I was never sure if I was truly old fashioned, or just afraid to dive into physical intimacy and its attendant embarrassments. Maybe that’s why I started writing about love rather than experiencing it first hand.

Sublimating my sexuality into my writing wasn’t without long-term benefits. During a spate of book tours a couple of years ago, I discovered that a good reading at Borders can translate into romance at the Hilton (“I think we can still get room service at this hour”) , thus reducing my usually extended courtship phase to a few hours, at best. This has led to a corresponding reduction in my ability to do any intelligence gathering about what viral companions I might be bringing home with me at tour’s end.

The youngest women I’ve been with don’t generally lie about their conditions. They simply don’t know about them at all, nor do they want to. “I’ve never been tested for anything,” a grad student informed me as she removed her clothes. “I’m scared of what would show up.” I guess that counts as an open-ended disclosure.

The one older woman I dated, however–a married-but-pretty-much-separated audiologist–withheld the truth until long after I would consider it appropriate. I (incorrectly) assumed that because she had been married for so long, and since I was her first affair, she was “clean.” It turns out she was so afraid to tell me about her recurrent herpes condition that she lied and said her sores were the result of an allergy to latex condoms. When she finally fessed up, I felt violated. “See?” she said, “I knew you’d react this way. That’s why I didn’t tell you.” It wasn’t the herpes that bothered me as much as her dishonesty. Not to mention the fortune I spent on less-safe lambskin condoms, under the painful impression I had made her physically ill with latex.

I guess she came from the other end of the disclosure spectrum–those who tell lovers about their communicable diseases if and only if the relationship has moved beyond casual (and inherently risky) sex into something more committed. Theoretically, this strategy favors the STD-afflicted, because it gives them more time to establish bonds before dropping the relationship-threatening news.

But, with me anyway, it tends to work in reverse. If a woman tells me of a potential transmission before we’ve had any sex, I’ll tend to overcompensate in her favor and do my best to show that I’m still helplessly attracted to her. When she doesn’t tell me until afterwards, though, I am given a brand new excuse to retreat. If, subconsciously, I really am afraid of contracting whatever it is she’s got, now I can use her dishonesty as my rationale to break it off in righteous indignation.

Thanks to good fortune alone, I am still disease-free, and would prefer to stay that way, at least until I’m married. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not afraid of the herpes themselves, whatever they are, or any other disease whose symptoms don’t include death. I’d be all-too-willing to risk catching herpes from my lover, but only if I knew she was going to be my last and lifelong partner. That’s because I’m most afraid of being a carrier–of having to talk about it, or, even worse, of giving a disease to someone else. (I’d rather be the person waiting in the rain than the one who’s late for the rendezvous, too.)

Now that my wilder days have passed–and they only accounted for a half-dozen encounters over a two-year period, at best–I’ve pretty much written off casual sex. I’m waiting for “the real thing.” True love. I want sex to be a way of expressing my feelings, not finding out what they are.

You’d think this would make life a lot easier, but it hasn’t. In fact, in my quest for a real, honest, and open relationship, I’ve failed in my responsibility to speak plainly about STDs almost as neglectfully as the married woman who lied about latex.

Last month I went to a basketball game with a brilliant and stunningly beautiful young woman. We were having a great time together, so I asked her if she wanted to go out for a movie the following night. She said she was busy. Doing what? Oh, having a routine liver biopsy. Why? Hepatitis C.

I didn’t know how to respond; no one had ever revealed such personal information to me before–not at Madison Square Garden, anyway. I told her I hoped the tests went okay, and then called my doctor pal that night for the lowdown. Hepatitis C, in her case the result of IV drug use a decade earlier, is more easily transmitted than AIDS, and potentially just as fatal. After six to eight years of dormancy, it can attack the liver like a cancer. Worse, the virus is found in all the best juices, including saliva and other nectars–not just blood and semen. He suggested that I use “barrier precautions” including dental dams (which I always thought were just a PR scheme to make condoms seem like less of an imposition) and that I only engage in “limited oral contact.”

The thought of these restrictions–not to mention funerals–didn’t exactly turn me on to the idea of sex with this woman. But neither did it free me from a deep sense of guilt. Why should a person who obviously has her shit together now be forced to pay for mistakes of the past? I’d done different but equally stupid things myself when I was nineteen, and only luck saved me from my recklessness. Besides, I could only respect her for managing to work this particularly touchy subject into a conversation on our first date. That is, if she really felt like it was a touchy subject at all.

I was afraid to find out. Instead, I went ahead and foolishly shared my fears with the friend who had introduced us in the first place. It turns out he had had a brief fling with her years before and now he was scared, too. That very night, he picked up the phone. and expressed his concern, using my concern as a cover. He eventually confessed his leak to me, along with the woman’s response: What’s the big deal? Everyone who used IV drugs has it, and only ten percent of them get the full-blown disease.

That kind of pissed me off. I’m not a weird sissy for being a bit freaked out by the chance of contracting a potentially fatal disease, am I? But what right did I have to be pissed off? I never had the courage to tell her how I felt.

I’ve been out with her a few times since, and feel like a shit not only for avoiding sexual situations (even though I usually wouldn’t be having sex this early, anyway), but also for avoiding talking about the subject. I know she knows, but I just can’t bring the subtext to the surface.

I’ve rationalized that she probably isn’t truly interested in me at all–she’s so cool, and I’m such a geek. She’d surely figure this out sooner or later and drop me, anyway. Why risk getting a fatal disease just to be heartbroken, too? I mean, if we were already in love and found out together that she had a potentially fatal disease, it would be our problem. At the outset, though, with chances being so slim of actually forging a lasting relationship together, why risk death?

Besides, if I were to straight-out tell her how I felt about STDs, hepatitis and dental dams, it would be a bit presumptuous, no? How do I know she’s even interested in having sex with me at all?

But that’s crap and I know it. If Hep-C is a deal-breaker for me, I should just admit it. But, like many of us who have turned to the pen, I find I can be more honest in public print than in person. Thus this little essay: a confession of sorts–and a plea for understanding.