Ever logged on to look for love? You’re not alone—more than 16 million adults in the U.S. have used online dating services, according to a recent survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Once the domain of only a few major websites, online dating has exploded into a major marketplace with hundreds of sites to choose from. Alongside the larger, more generic options are a range of niche sites that cater to select audiences—pet lovers, farmers, alumni of select colleges—you name it. Among these specialized sites are dating services geared toward people with a range of health conditions, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While sites such as these can help “break the ice,” are they also necessarily isolating? Charles Ebel, co-author of Managing Herpes: Living & Loving with HSV, offers his take on this growing trend in the online world.
In general, I’d have to say my attitude towards dating services for people with STIs has softened to some extent. Originally, I had been opposed to the idea. As part of the ASHA staff running a national Herpes Resource Center, we began to run into this notion way back in the 1980s in our network of local herpes support groups. Some folks would come to the groups for support or a place to vent, others for medical information, but some got involved because they thought they could find a partner there. Most of the groups around the country—there were almost 100 at the time—put some limits on this. For one thing, the groups needed to be a place where someone could go without feeling that someone would “hit on” them. For another, our philosophy organizationally was that HSV infection was incredibly common and unnecessarily stigmatized. We felt that suggesting to people newly diagnosed with herpes that they needed to start thinking about dating other people with herpes was completely wrong. We tried to buck the idea that herpes is a sort of master status trait.
Our point: It’s not who you are. It’s something that happened along the way—like getting mono, for example (another herpesvirus). So the major point was that someone getting an HSV diagnosis should not let it redefine them. It should not restrict them in terms of who they can fall in love with. I still believe that.
But I say my view has softened because it’s clear from working as an educator in this field for a long time that people with HSV often do have a hard time telling others about it. (Surveys show 30 to 40 percent of people have not told a current partner.) I wish we could change that—remove the angst, remove the stigma. But for some people there is a major barrier to disclosure. So something that helps to remove that barrier—like an online dating service that pre-screens people—obviously can be helpful. Secondly, we have always advised people with genital HSV to make efforts to reduce the risk of spreading it to a partner—and part of that risk reduction involves being honest about it, and ideally making decisions about risk with partners. Again, you are dealing with a discussion that some people find difficult to have, and a dating site can make talking about prevention a lot easier.
And of course, two people who have HSV-2 already not only can talk about it but they will have natural immunity against that particular virus. So they probably will not be needing to take any precautions. So in all honesty I have to say that I think there are dating sites that do help people with herpes. Maybe it helps someone who is going through a tough adjustment—helps them start dating again. And maybe after dating some people who have herpes they are ready to open themselves back up to dating people who don’t. Or maybe they find their perfect match—I’m sure it happens. The sites that I’ve seen that address dating and STIs vary widely in sophistication.
I do worry sometimes about the health and medical information that’s posted on them. Much of it is put together hastily and not kept up to date. I’ve seen this time and again. Many of these are mom-and-pop businesses, and they don’t have resources to support medical writers or true medical advisors. So the content can be wrong. It can also be quite superficial and stigmatizing, because the writers just don’t get the subtleties.
I can understand why HPV and hepatitis and other viral STIs also generate some interest on these sites, though I think the case for each has its own subtleties. HPV, for example, is even more common that HSV and also can be a transient virus, so the message there is different. There’s no consensus on a person who has HPV needing to tell every partner forever after....so it does surprise me to see dating sites for that.