Very Personal Personals: Dating With an STD

Shawn Henderson tried online dating through AOL, but he preferred a personals site for those, like him, who're HIV-positive.
Shawn Henderson tried online dating through AOL, but he preferred a personals site for those, like him, who're HIV-positive. (By Katherine Frey For The Washington Post)
By Stephanie Booth
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

After her 10-year marriage ended in divorce last spring, Nancy, 39, was apprehensive about jumping back into the dating game. Her main concern wasn't that her long hours as a researcher would keep her from meeting men, but of the reaction she might face when she eventually disclosed she has herpes.

"Having that conversation is tough," says the Prince George's County resident, who contracted the disease from an ex-boyfriend. "When I was first diagnosed in my twenties, I thought it was the end of the world."

As luck would have it, Nancy (who asked that The Post withhold her last name to protect her privacy) stumbled across an Internet dating community specifically for singles diagnosed with herpes -- Meet People With H ( ). She posted information about herself, along with a photo, and within days, responses from "tons of men" -- including CEOs, a firefighter and an architect -- came pouring in.

"It was a huge load off to know I didn't have to face telling someone I had herpes. Some people still believe if you have it you've 'been around' a lot, which isn't true at all," Nancy says.

According to the American Social Health Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing STDs, more than 65 million Americans live with a viral sexually transmitted disease such as herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B and HIV. Unlike bacterial STDs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, which can be cured if caught early enough, viral diseases can only be managed. Once contracted, they become a permanent part of the person's sex and dating landscape -- a situation that can be more daunting than seeking medical treatment.

"Disclosing their sexual history is the hardest part for some people," said Charles Ebel, vice president of health program resources at ASHA.

On mainstream dating Web sites, the issue of when, how or even if a member should disclose a medical condition generally isn't addressed. "Many online dating services find the subject of STDs to be taboo," said Joe Tracy, publisher of Online Dating Magazine, which tracks trends in the industry. "Instead of providing a great educational resource, they run away from the subject altogether."

Thus, the evolution of a handful of niche dating sites with names like Positive Personals (for people diagnosed with HIV) and After H (herpes and HPV). They work like any online dating service -- register, post a profile and maybe a photo, and view other members' personal information, too. But rather than advice on dealing with rejection or a list of couple-friendly movies, visitors can read about "HIV Stops With Me," a campaign to encourage condom use, or a book about Melissa extract, a natural remedy used to treat herpes.

The affirming salve of most dating sites -- imagining that everyone running across one's profile will be in exactly the same awkward, romantically hopeful position -- can be doubly comforting here.

"When these sites began to emerge, we did worry they would stigmatize people with STDs, like herpes, as outsiders," Ebel said. "But in many cases -- especially when a person's newly diagnosed -- these sites can help break them out of their temporary isolation and provide their first step back into the dating world."

That's how it worked for District resident Shawn Henderson, 31. After learning he was HIV-positive two years ago, he posted his profile on AOL personals as well as Positive Personals. Both sites yielded a handful of casual dates at local coffeehouses or bars, but on the AOL-initiated outings, "once it was disclosed I was HIV-positive, that's when they bailed."

Henderson also found a boon beyond the first meeting: much less pressure once the relationship got physical.

"It's always easier [for me] to date someone who's also HIV-positive," he says. "Otherwise, that anxiety is always in the back of your mind, 'What if I give it to him?' "

Most of the sites go out of their way to encourage safe sex -- and Ebel, for one, believes that their users may be more likely to take heed than the general population, because they're hyper-aware of the risks of transmitting their disease.

Anthony Matthews, 48, founded the Antopia Herpes/HPV Network back in 1997, after a separation from his wife left the Boeing aeronautical engineer seeking other people who, like himself, were afflicted with herpes. Today, the San Fernando Valley-based site is the largest and busiest STD community on the Web, with nearly 45,000 members visiting both dating (MPwH) and information sites ( ).

But while, according to Matthews, "people have married after meeting on the site," he views his community as more than a matchmaking service.

"I am absolutely not a believer that people with herpes and HPV should only date others with it, although it is easier," he said. "Having herpes in common with someone is not a great basis for a relationship. . . . Our goal is providing information and making people be okay with" their disease.

Indeed, once people grow more comfortable with their diagnoses, they may leaves the sites behind. Henderson met the man he's currently dating -- who's not HIV-positive -- through a mutual friend. Nancy met her boyfriend of six weeks through, not MPwH.

"I eventually thought, 'If I had a glass eyeball, would I only date a man with a glass eyeball?' " she said. "I hope that eventually everyone reaches the point where they can have that conversation and just say, 'I have herpes.' "

© 2005 The Washington Post Company