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should you tell? --a question of morality?


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(On another forum I came across this post: http://racoon.com/dcforum/DCForumID11/1172.html. The following is in part a response to it but by no means dependent on it. I've decided to repost it here because it concerns something we all need to consider.)

In a many of the posts here, people voice their concerns about not how to tell someone that they have herpes but about if they should tell someone at all. Specifically, one post, and a few of its replies, interested me the most: "casual sex and dating." I've decided to start a new thread in order to draw attention to a question this thread raises.

After admitting that she has not told a few people about her infection, the poster asks, "Is this morally despicable?"

One person replied that it is, while others argued that morality is subjective and that it is up to the person infected to decide for themselves.

Now that I've made my little introduction, I'll get to my point/question. Certainly, morality is subjective. To ignore this objective fact of subjectivity is to ignore the significance of culture, language, one's upbringing, and one's own personal experiences along with a million other things. To declare that something is morally despicable is absolutely subjective. In other words, to claim anything on the grounds of morality and force this claim on another is a huge problem.

However, to say that telling my sex partner that I have herpes is a pure matter of choice to be measured against and guided by MY OWN sense of morality is fundamentally problematic. Telling a potential lover that I have herpes is not a question of subjective morality.

The person who gave me herpes justified her not telling me--after I called her irresponsible--by saying, "well that's only one way of looking at it." No, it is the only way.

(I might ask here how many of you got herpes from someone that knew they had it but didn't tell you before you had sex--I'm sure the results of such a poll would be less than uplifting. This alone should give you a clue of where I'm going with this.)

The fact of the matter is that the act of having sex with someone goes beyond simple questions of subjectivity as the subjectivity of ONE person. The experience, what I feel when I embrace someone, when they embrace me, when I open up that most intimate part of myself to another, what I feel at that moment certainly is subjective. BUT the act of having sex, that opening up of that intimate part of myself, of OURselves (because there are always--at least--two of us) creates an intersubjective relationship. Sex is always with another person. Questions of "should I or shouldn't I tell" should never be based solely on the moral constitution of the infected person alone. By doing so, I am eliminating the other person from the decision making process. (I could liken such a decision to sexual abuse and/or rape, but that is another subject.)

Sex is an intense fusion of one person's sense of self-intimacy with another's. It is truly a case of a "multitude becoming one," in physical terms and in terms of subjectivity. This is a case when subjectivity (which is only ever inter-subjectivity, but I don't want to get into that argument) is multiple. By opening ourselves up to someone, making love to them, we have to open up everything of ourselves. They are giving themselves entirely (we hope), so shouldn't we do the same?

Having sex with someone, engaging with someone on such an intimate and vital level (vital in both senses of the word, literal and figurative)--this is a tacit promise to give, to disclose all of myself because it is no longer a question of only myself but of myself WITH another person. It is because of this "with" that I have a responsibility (not a subjective, moral responsibility but instead an objective, intersubjective responsibility) to tell someone else about my disease.

Some of us have experienced the results of such a breakdown of this social/sexual contract due to a lover's selfishness, due to his/her inability or fear of conceiving of having sex as a tacit promise between two people. When I open myself to another person and they do the same, I have a responsibility to them, and they have a responsibility to me.

To ignore that responsibility is to betray another's trust. It is a negation of the closeness that constitutes a large part of what makes having sex/making love enjoyable.

Some may accuse me of positing my own ideas as irrefutable fact, of imposing my own abstract beliefs on others, but if you (those of you who got it from someone who knew they had it but didn't say anything--everyone else can empathize, I'm sure) think back to the way you felt when you found out, maybe even the way you still feel, I'm sure the above ideas are familiar.

Morally despicable? Maybe not. An absolutely irresponsible handling of another's trust? Absolutely so.

We must tell others. We, the betrayed, should know that better than anyone else.

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There definately is something about it that doesn't quite sit well, but the problem I have with it is the words used. They just don't work all that well here. Certainly there are morals of a group just as there are morals of an individual, but an agreement is always between at least two people. Besides, I think restating the argument in the above way makes it much stronger.

On moral grounds, I condemn this person by saying, "you betrayed your morals, or at least what should be your morals." Where is the victim here? Where is the newly infected person?

Its much stronger to say, "you betrayed another's trust and thereby missed one of the points of making love. You failed to make love to this person."

On that note, if I may add something else:

Certainly there are questions of fear, fear of not being loved, fear of love being so distant that its potential is infinitely small. We, those infected with STDs, we also know this better than anyone else. Yet without giving all of ourselves, by shying away from that responsibility, the prospect of love is even more distant. Love, as the becoming one of two people, is dependent on our honesty and on our responsibility to our beloved.

Everyone's got their own way to work through this disease. I guess mine is nitpicky and a bit more complicated than it should be.

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Hey there lintrus...

I do think you may be over-complicating things a tad bit. But, hey..writing helps people sort things out.

I can't wrap my head around what you've written though.

I think you are melding two separate issues.

Stick to the facts and ya won't get confused is my motto.

Fact One: A Person Must Disclose They Have An STD Before They Sleep With Someone!

I can see Sylvester now shaking his head telling Tweedy...Thathhh DithhhhhhhhhhhhPicable

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Perhaps the two points you think I am confusing are the ideas of love and of having sex. Admittedly, I use one to symbolically talk about the other.

But let's separate them for a moment. Certainly sex can be dispassionate. Of course there are times when even the most romantic go out with the simple intention of bringing someone home that night.

I think this is a significant point. However, the lack of closeness this touches upon is a lack of spiritual closeness, of emotional bond. We all have to admit that this is not always part of sex. Sometimes people just screw to screw.

That said, there is another sort of closeness that is always present by the very definition of the way we screw/make love--this is the physical closeness necessary to having sex. I may not open up my heart/soul/spirit etc. to this person in my bed, but I ALWAYS OPEN UP MY BODY. The disease is always of the body. It is a bodily disease. Its EFFECTS are both physical and emotional.

Just because I only open up my body to this person does not mean that the tacit contract between us is any less valid. And more importantly, nor does it mean that my body has no effect on their heart/soul/spirit, whatever you want to call it. As anyone here would affirm, herpes, a disease of the body, through its many effects, has a way of manifesting itself on an emotional level as well.

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I've tried to hold a thread on a similar subject - finding the "one" or finding the "one night stand" and I got trampled and misunderstood and had to conclude that those of us who are newer to this virus than others and still have their hearts in their proverbial hands are wounded by this topic. That is of course my opinion.

This journey is not smooth and the first few months or even years are brutal to the psyche when contemplating whether we will ever be physically loved again.

I get what you are saying and I appreciate the articulation as it approaches the issue as a responsibility of two individuals instead of one. We must stay with the question at hand and it is Should you tell? a question of morality.

Morally yes, you should tell. Whose morality is this? Mine of course. You asked me the question and that is my answer but someone else will, as you so well stated, have a different idea of morality.

We can conceptualize and rationalize and imagine that which is already present in our own hearts but to try to predict the content of another's is folly.

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There is absolutely NO doubt in my mind whatsoever that you should tell. I also have no problems with calling someone who deliberately misleads his/her partner and infects them morally despicable. I believe that they are.

Look at it this way: that person has just given someone else a disease that they will carry for life. Their partner, who was not informed, had no choice in the matter. You might also want to consider that, in many states, becoming sexually intimate with someone when you know you have an std and not telling them is considered assault.

Assault is a small thing because the effects of this disease are primarily psychological.

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Consequence of telling...

Hello all, I'm a newbie and I'm hurting so bad. I agree that we have a duty to tell our partner that we have the disease. I had my first outbreak back in Oct. 2006 and I told my boyfriend of only 1 month. We had unprotected sex and I was diagnosed but he was so convinced that he didn't have it. He didn't get tested specifically for it either because he'd just had a physical which he thought his doctor 'automatically' tested him for. Well, after almost 9 months of dating him and 8 months of Valtrex, and an absent sex life as a result, he says, a level of trust has been broken. I TOLD HIM, the MOMENT I got the results, and he doesn't sexually trust me? That hurts like hell, I cried all night and I'm still crying now that I'm at work at my desk. Please help. Because I TOLD, and look at where it got me?

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Mrs. Butterworth,

That hurts. I know it does because the sheer prospect of it has kept me from starting any new relationships since I was diagnosed last year.

What I'm going to say might hurt too:

I'm sure you have strong feelings for this guy to stay with him for this long without having sex, but by the way you're describing him here, he sounds like a complete idiot who has no idea how to be there for you.

First of all, let's consider the idiot factor: knowing you are HSV+, he refuses to get tested, assuming that a routine physical does it anyway. Hell, even at some sexual health clinics you specifically have to ask them to check for HSV in addition to the bacterial infections (G and C) and HIV/AIDS. Not many people know this last bit, but to not know the first... If you don't have to drop your pants, and you don't feel extremely awkward, chances are they aren't looking.

Secondly, he's an idiot because he clearly isn't there for you. You have barely had sex since the diagnosis, and 8 months later he says that he can't trust you--obviously this isn't something new he's been dealing with; clearly it has been on his mind for 8 months. Only now does he have the balls to say "I can't deal with this" like man.

In other words, the problem is not you, not at all. You took responsibility, you opened yourself completely to him, you showed that you were capable of loving him. He on the other hand, is an interesting example of a person not being able to take responsibility for himself or you (he might very well have HSV or something else) and incapable of dealing with someone (you) who takes that responsibility.

In those situations when you disclose and give up all of yourself, it is also a request for the other to do the same--an adult version of "show me yours and I'll show you mine." The other person must open themselves up or walk away. When they walk away, it hurts. Sure it does. To have someone refuse your love can only hurt. (I should point out that we cannot condemn another for walking away because this too, firmly saying "no," is a form of responsibility). Nevertheless, you know where everything stands and can, in time, move on.

Your bf failed not only to open himself up but to walk away. Not even making a decision, lingering around like a torturous "uhm, I don't know...," he failed to make love to you in both a literal and symbolic sense and therefore revealed that he has no idea what it even is to love.

I know you've probably developed feelings for him over the past months, but his obliviousness and his sheer insensitivity to your situation suggests that he isn't worth your time. You might think that since you have herpes, you better take what you can get while you can get it, but this isn't the case at all (just look at other parts of this msg board for examples).

In the adapted words of Teddy Pendergrass, You've got so much love to give, but don't give it all to this jackass.

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MrsButterWorth - I'd only say that I'm disappointed in your bf's response to your disclosure. It sounds like a classic case to me of someone who may have infact infected you but refuses to take responsibility by confirming whether or not he has or has not been tested and to take it beyond that to be the second part of a relationship that contains two people.

I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right and you might want to consider if it is worth it to you to stay with someone who is not there for you.

It pisses me off on your behalf that you're being treated like you've caused a problem when it might not be so. It is very possible that he is the one who gave this to you and instead of stating the obvious which might be that "you can't trust him" he won't get tested, he won't confirm he's been tested and he won't take responsibility by taking the right steps to confirm where this came from.

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to tell or not to tell

I think the people who believe it is their personal choice to tell a partner or not to tell must be people who were told up front by the infected person that they had H and they were given a choice. I on the otherhand was not given the choice and now have to suffer because someone decided not to give me the choice. Does it also make it ok to have an abortion without telling the person who impregnated you too? I to am against that! NO one has the right to make a life changing decision for another person. I hate the person who didn't disclose his H status to me and would bet 99% of people that contracted it this way feel as I do. It's one thing if it's your choice to take the risk, and you make the choice to live with the outcome, it's completely different if it wasn't!

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toforgive - that is an interesting perspective on why some of us want to disclose and others do not.

I would estimate that very few individuals are given the choice by way of a partner who informs them of the risk. It is also interesting that if you queried a group of uninfected individuals I believe that they would argue that we all know that we are taking a risk every time we engage in sex with a new partner and that fact alone should make us responsible for our own infections. My opinion is that thinking is shallow and cruel and they'd change their tune the minute they were in our shoes.

As for the issue of abortion. I want to say that I respect your opinion and feel you should have a right to state it but I have the following argument.

It would be nice for this to be a choice of two individuals but there is no way that it can be equal. The woman must carry the child to term, and in the society I live in, she must be willing to sacrifice her life and freedom to give birth. The other party, in theory, has a biological stake but his very life is not in danger and he can easily walk away. Further he has no obligation to support his offspring and it is impossible for the court to force him to contribute financially. If he chooses to neglect his reponsibilities a court order is only a court order it cannot compel him to hand over his check every month if he decides he will not comply. I don't think another person has the right to decide for me what I do with my body. I find this comparison to be ill suited to the debate about disclosure and it is confirmed in your comment "It's one thing if it's your choice to take the risk, and you make the choice to live with the outcome, it's completely different if it wasn't!"

When it comes to disclosure about hsv I believe we should all take responsibility for our own actions. In a perfect world respect would be available to everyone. I have decided that disclosure is the only honorable option and the only option that is good enough for me. No I was not given the choice but if I had been given the choice my decision would be the same.

Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your honesty and your committment to disclosure.

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Not to go too far from the initial topic of this thread, but I too think that in the case of abortion it all comes down to the woman's choice.

However, as a man, I feel that when possible--and it most often possible--the man should be allowed to take part in the decision to or not to have an abortion. Certainly the woman can say, "thanks, but I still don't want/ can't support this child," but the man should at least be given the chance to offer his own input.

The positions of the man and woman in making such a decision should not be equal--and for the reasons Caliope already stated--but the man should at least be given the opportunity to state his own opinion, to supply his own input even it is to be trumped by that of the woman.

Wasn't there an episode of Sex in/and the City (forgive me if I don't get the title right--I've only seen it a few times) on this very topic?

For example, I was once in a similar position. A few years back, my girlfriend at the time and I had the unfortunate experience of having a condom break. We were studying abroad, and she had recently went off the pill because she ran out of them and could not get her prescription refilled very quickly. Having heard that fertility levels sky rocket after going off the pill, we were very worried. Thankfully, in Europe it is much easier to get the day-after pill. Yet on the train, we began discussing what would have happened in the case that we would have had to decide to/not to get an abortion. While I am pro-choice, I could never bring my self to abort the pregnancy. She on the other hand, wouldn't hesitate to do so. The hypothetical situation that popped in my mind was then that of her aborting the pregnancy despite me. The decision would not have been my own, and I would have to live knowing that a potential child of mine was not born.

This just goes to prove that sex is never casual--there are too many factors for it to be taken lightly. It is never completely a question of one person but always two people. Disclosure, then, presents itself as something that not only concerns sexual health but many other factors that even established couples may not even consider until forced to do so.

The more I deal with and think about this disease, the idea of sex, that romantic, fleeting moment between two people, even within a relationship, becomes more complicated.

Though sex may still be a fleeting moment, what is involved, what comes before, what may come afterward, should never be taken lightly.

I guess the question then presents itself: how do we maintain that ephemeral experience of sheer enjoyment, the one that we cherish because of that very ephemerality, within such a complicated context?

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i think you reading to much into it and making all to complicated..

people do and can have sex without being in love with the other person...

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I thought I was talking about it in symbolic terms.....

lets try this again

A turn of the phrase "to make love," to love, to "open" yourself up (vulnerability), to give yourself up to someone (lose yourself in the one that is made of the two in sex, hence the impossibility of the purely subjective).

...Or.. I fuck girl. I penetrate her : extreme phsyical closeness, my body exposed to all of hers because for a moment they are glued together.

On the other hand and at the same time: I don't tell or I flake. I deny them a different sort of closeness, this time emotional, one having to do with knowing everything they should know. Yet I still fuck them (while they are) blind.

Have sex in one sense, and fail to be open in another.

Of course people fuck to fuck. I addressed this in another eariler post on this thread. But that does not mean by any means that it has any less (potential for) an emotional impact.

So lets simplify this even more. "I fuck you, and you fuck me" = "We fuck each other." Therefore, since WE fuck each other, I have a responsibility to you and you to me, that is to not fuck each other over, physically or emotionally. Emotionally because you cannot split one from the other, even if it truely is just fucking.

(By the decent number of replies to this post, I assumed people understood what I first wrote)

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thats gone over my head....

1) people should always tell partners if they have a STD.

2) i aint got a phd so all your writing in symbolic terms has gone over my head.

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I don't mean to be spitting pedantic acid...

I'm just going through my first ob in over 6 months and oscillating between pathetic nombrilism and picking fights.

Maybe I should move on down to the rants and raves section.

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thats gone over my head....

1) people should always tell partners if they have a STD.

2) i aint got a phd so all your writing in symbolic terms has gone over my head

get out there and life live...

you aint dead yet, and this virus wont kill you either..

That was soooooooo funny (particularly the bit in bold).

I think if philosophising about it (for want of a better word) helps, then great.

It reminds me of essays years ago where it seemed like almost every word had to be defined in great detail - it didn't serve any purpose but it meant I passed the essay! But, this way of writing can release a lot of frustration for the author - so that's fine by me (I just don't think you'll get as many people reading this type of post - but of course I might be wrong).

Bottom line is that everyone so far in this thread agrees that WE MUST TELL. Whether we define sex in 5 words or a hundred and five words.

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Don't tell. Keep it a secret. So people like me can sue your trifling @$$, drag all your medical records into court, dig up ALL your ex's (hmmm, do any of THEM need to sue you while we're at it?), dig up all your assets, force you to take time off work to hang out with a mediocre defense attorney, attend stomach-knotting depositions and come to mediation sessions to discuss how nice a house you want to volunteer to buy my client to avoid a trial, order you to take more medical exams at your own expense, get all the medical and mental health notes your doctor made about you that you have never seen and don't flatter you, have your employer inconveniently "informed", have your doctors mad at you because we want to drag them into court, have your neighbors/associates/colleagues talking and slyly forewarning all your future partners, and having to start over and find another lawyer because the first one often just can't handle the details down the road, but won't tell you up front. And the bonus, is the day-in day-out wonder if THIS will be the day that the person you have deceived (or anybody close to them) will SNAP and exact serious out-of-court revenge. It's a great time.

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I don't know who that anger is directed towards--no one who has posted in this thread is suggesting that we should not tell. If my over-complicating the question gave you that impression, I should have expressed myself more clearly. I think we all agree--at least on this board (see the first post)--that we have a responsibility to fully disclose our HSV status.

What I was trying to do was simply to reformulate the answer in perhaps a stronger way, to reason through something that, to us, doesn't even need to be reasoned through. Not everyone seems to agree though. My ex didn't. I also wanted, instead of supplying a short, quick, dry answer, to express my thoughts in a more "expressive," or perhaps "poetic" manner.

Personally, I find it easier to think through things like this. I guess grad school has completely detached me from the real world.

I guess my attempt at combining the two sort of missed the mark.

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There's no particular anger in my post. I didn't have the energy to read the previous posts and wasn't "responding" to those, but to the overarching issue which I found simple---I tend to quote people to whom I am directly responding in detail.

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tohealth - personally I love the court dialogue. you were speaking my language there and I found it amusing to consider that this is how it could actually play out.

Lintrus - I'm no dummy but some of the vocabulary words left me wondering what the heck you were saying. I don't have a dictionary at home.

I think most of us are here because we were careful, we thought we were paying attention and we got played. It sucks and it makes an otherwise strong intelligent person feel like a victim and for me that is the cause of much of my psychological baggage with hsv.

I let my guard down and I trusted someone I simply should not have been trusting and I will deal with that outcome for the rest of my life. It is overwhelming and more consuming than I'd like. Why else after 4 months would I still be here exacting my therapy on an electronic forum.

Disclose your status. Always. Inform others of how to prevent getting this crap, however you can, even if it is letters to the editors of magazines or the directors of std clinics. Stop the epidemic. Be personally accountable. Take responsibility for educating at least one person.

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  • 1 year later...

As I posted in another thread, I think it should be a subjective thing, at least with casual partners.

I've had a lot of casual sex. I admit it. I have herpes and genital warts and I wasn't warned about either one of them. But I'm not angry at the guys, because I understood that condoms DID NOT protect against either one of these viruses, and I took the risk.

I would make sure you are as non-contagious as you are ever going to get, and then think about it.

It also depends on your lover. If you are with a sickly person, pregnant woman, prude....then yeah, let them know.

I don't advocate for the deliberate spread of chronic viruses. I just think that herpes, like HPV, is rather difficult to avoid.

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