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The Relationship Doctor

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Deborah Cooper on love, sex, and HSV

The emotional impact that accompanies genital herpes – especially in the beginning- often centers on worries that the diagnosis will make it difficult to find romance and sexual fulfillment. The reality is that a herpes diagnosis doesn’t shut the door to love and sex, and excessive worrying might do more to throw off Cupid’s aim than HSV.

Dr. Deborah Cooper is the psychological advisor to the Los Angeles herpes support group (the much beloved “L.A. HELP” that has operated since 1978 in Southern California). Known as “The Relationship Doctor,” she is a psychotherapist with over 20 years’ experience and an expert in helping patients cope with the aftershocks of a herpes diagnosis. Not quite sure how to approach the dating world? Sit right down, the doctor is in.

An infamous Time magazine cover in 1982 that proclaimed herpes the” new scarlet letter” is seen a bell-weather in HSV stigma. Have things changed much since the 80s and 90s?
I think HSV-related stigma has evolved a little bit, certainly since the emergence of HIV.  We’re grown more accustomed to the idea of herpes.   However, there are still many people calling me who are upset about a herpes diagnosis, afraid to touch anyone.  My attempts to disarm these feelings and put herpes in context often fall on deaf ears.

Why is herpes often so difficult emotionally?
That it’s not curable is perhaps the main thing, it’s a life-long infection. I do my best to try and relieve people who are upset, explaining that genital herpes is common and not dangerous. That’s small consolation to someone who is worrying that no one is going to want to have sex with them again. That’s a needless worry, but a very real one for many.

Also, herpes isn’t politically correct. You can tell a joke about herpes, but it’s hard to get away with that with, say, HIV. Also, look at the star power that is brought to other diseases and conditions; no one really does that with herpes. If Hollywood stars got involved, that would help! (One Hollywood star came to an L.A. HELP meeting incognito but the voice gave her away.) Here again, though, herpes typically isn’t medically harmful – you won’t die from it- so it’s somewhat trivialized. It’s perceived as a medical “nuisance” more than anything.

How do you counsel those who might be unsure or reluctant about seeking new partners?
I think it’s important to know that since herpes is so common, there’s a good chance the partner has it and doesn’t know it; most HSV infections are not recognized. I encourage them to go with their partner and be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), and this should include a type-specific blood test for HSV-2. This process can be framed as something that’s done to protect the health of both partners…make it about more than just herpes. They should share their test results paperwork. If both partners have HSV-2, there’s nothing to worry about in that regard. If only one of them has HSV-2, then they consider the many options available to reduce the risk of transmission: condom use, daily medication, and abstaining during outbreaks.

The way herpes is brought up and discussed is also important. I’ve had too many people crying when they tell a partner about having herpes, so of course their partner’s response is negative. I explain them to put on the “Jenny Jones” smile. You remember Jenny Jones? She had a talk show and would ask outrageous questions to her guests, which they usually answered easily because she had this broad, disarming smile!

What do you think about dating sites for HSV? Are they helpful or harmful?
I think they’re helpful. I’ve worked with people who have allowed herpes to stop their lives and keep them from finding relationships and love. The herpes dating sites (and also meet-up sites directed toward herpes and socializing – we have one in L.A. and Orange County) help them to get out and, first of all, talk with someone about herpes without the stigma attached. People are getting out there and continuing their dating ritual, instead of just staying home. I find it makes it easier to transition to dating people in the broader population.

My impression is that taking baby steps gives them back their confidence. Of course they encounter the same things on a herpes dating site as they would on any other: people don’t always look like their picture, they say they’re 10 years younger than they are! Just go with the flow, it’s a numbers game: the more they meet, the sooner they succeed.

What are some good resources for those who can’t access Dr. Deborah?
Well, people can access Dr. Deborah! People have called me from all over the country. Contact me through my page on the L.A. HELP website at, or go to my personal website at


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