Every other week Doing It Decent considers the ethics of a sexual situation from our readers. Grappling with a touchy sexual ethics issue? Here's how to send in a question to Doing It Decent. Send me an email and be sure to put "DID" in the subject line. All questions will be posted anonymously with identifying information removed.
Disclosing STDs – When and Who to TellI have herpes and when I found out basically all my doctor told me was that I have to watch for flare ups, and tell sexual partners. But I don’t know when. At what point do I have to disclose to a potential partner? Is it even an issue if I’m not having a flare up and if I’m using condoms?
Elizabeth Boskey, our About.com Guide to STDs, says that after you’ve been told you have herpes the first things you do are: Take a breath, and then school yourself. You’ll feel a lot more in control, and maybe even a little better, when you have more information. Unfortunately, regular doctors are often not the best place to get information about sex, hence your reasonable question above.
Elizabeth also offers lots of great information about condoms, flare-ups, and herpes management, so let me here address the ethical part of your question.
Consider the following scenario. Let’s say I know I’m getting sick with a cold. I’m not showing symptoms yet but I know it’s there and I happen to be out and someone I’m super hot for wants to go home and have sex. I know there’s a good chance they could catch my cold. Am I ethically obligated to disclose the cold before heading home? In this situation if I didn’t, do you think most people would say my failure to disclose “understandable”?
Now change the story a bit and consider that the person I’m going home with has chronic respiratory problems. Getting a cold can mean they’re out of commission for a week or more, and can lead to other serious health problems. What would you say about my failure to disclose the cold now? Do you think my partner has a responsibility to make disclosures of their own?
In this situation, as in yours, one pertinent ethical question is whether or not you think that a partner would behave differently if they have the information you’re withholding. After all, your partner’s health is not your responsibility. Nor is it your ethical duty to calculate risks for a partner. But if you withhold information that prevents your partner from making an informed decision, particularly if you suspect that with this knowledge they would act differently, you’re entering murky ethical territory.
I say murky to remind you that there are no absolutes in ethics. One could argue that it’s your partner’s responsibility to either ask about STDs or, if they don’t want to know, to have sex in a way that reduces the chance of transmitting any STDs either way.
Another ethical consideration is the risk of harm and the severity of harm. Neither can ever be fully assessed in advance, but if you can reasonably assume that there is a significant risk of harm, and you believe the harm is serious enough that your partner would want to avoid it, then you have an ethical duty to say something.
Getting back to the particulars of your situation, I would say you do have an ethical responsibility to tell a partner you have herpes once you’re pretty sure you’re going to be having any kind of genital contact with that partner. As you’ll find out when you do some more reading, you can transmit herpes even if you don’t have visible sores, and condoms don’t provide 100% protection. If your doing something that doesn’t carry a risk of transmission, then you don’t reasonably need to disclose, but if you’re hoping it’ll go farther, you are, in the end, better off finding a way to talk about it before hand. One thing that might help is knowing that one out of every four women and one out of every five men in the United States will be infected with genital herpes at some point in their lives. If you’re partner has had enough partners you probably won’t be the first person to tell them you have herpes (or if you are, then you’re probably the most ethical partner they’ve had).