Almost two years ago, I got diagnosed with genital herpes, and my biggest concerns had nothing to do with the physical symptoms. My greatest fear, with deep roots in the pervasive stigma against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), was that my sex life was over. On top of that, I had just come out to myself as bisexual. How do I date people of multiple genders? How do I disclose my STI status? How do I prevent herpes transmission to vulva-owning partners when the scientific research is almost exclusively heterosexual? I coped with my uncertainty by creating the PPP.
Short for the “Pouch of Pleasure and Protection,” the PPP is my number one tool for navigating my sex life. At a basic level, it’s just a green zipper pouch. It’s decorated with images of daisies, and it was once filled with old tubes of lipstick. Now the pouch is home to my favorite safer sex tools. Here are the most essential items in my pouch:
Disclosure is the PPP’s trusty sidekick. It’s not the main character (nor is it a physical object), but for me, it’s essential to the plot. Personally, I always share my STI status before anything sexual happens — in part, because I never received this same disclosure. The person who transmitted to me was asymptomatic, and to his credit, routine herpes testing is not recommended by the CDC. I was stunned when I got diagnosed, and that’s a feeling I don’t wish on future partners. To me, disclosure is a key part of consent. I want to sleep with people who are fully informed about my status and are still enthusiastic as hell. I usually start the conversation by saying, “Here’s my status. What’s yours? When were you last tested?” Worthwhile partners will match my care and honesty.
Condoms & Dental Dams
Before my herpes diagnosis, I had slept with two people, both cis men, and I identified as straight. At that point in my life, I viewed barriers mainly as pregnancy prevention. Although contraception is still important to me, I now have an IUD, and I use latex barriers primarily for STI prevention. My favorite barrier is the often forgotten dental dam, which I typically use with vulva owners. But while I always have barriers on hand, I don’t always use them. That depends on each partner’s comfort level, and it also depends on mine. If a potential partner conflates my STI positive status with carelessness about my sexual health and insists on forgoing barriers when I’d rather use them, I walk out the door.
Over the past few years, I’ve accumulated three vibrators intended for clit stimulation. I grew up in purity culture, which holds penetrative sex on a pedestal. When I had P&V sex for the first time, I thought, “That’s what all this waiting talk is about?” Since I was taught that hetero penetration is the only sex that matters, I bypassed learning about my own body part designed entirely for pleasure. My clit-centered vibrators have been instrumental in the parallel processes of dismantling internalized purity culture and embracing my queer identity. They’re also delightful toys to use with partners of all genders. And if I feel an outbreak coming on and want to play on the safe side, I’ll always bring my vibes for mutual masturbation. In those moments, having vibrators on hand reminds me that my pleasure is still important, whether I’m symptom-free or not.
Medication (aka suppressive therapy) is not a requirement for herpes-positive folks. Many people only take Valtrex when they sense prodromal symptoms. Others take it daily as a precaution. Personally, I started on a daily regimen because I was training for my first half marathon. I feared that as soon as I laced up for 13.1 miles, I’d get an outbreak and be tasked with the world’s most uncomfortable run. Luckily, my outbreaks are infrequent, but I still appreciate the extra assurance for my partners. However, like herpes itself, the medication is stigmatized. I always roll my eyes at Valtrex jokes — which are still prominent in SNL sketches — characterizing those with a prescription as undesirable creeps. But in my book, popping a Valtrex while goofy-dancing to Katy Perry in front of a new partner after a second date — that’s sexy.
I always carry a tiny bottle of water-based lube to pair with my silicone vibrators. It’s one of my favorite ingredients for maximizing pleasure. I used to have an internalized the belief that using lube indicated a personal failing (I must not be sufficiently “turned on”). But in the past few years, as I’ve learned to assert my needs, I’ve grown to love lube. It’s a pause button. Reaching for that tiny bottle provides a nice recharge moment to check in with my partner, reconnect and make sure we’re still on the same page. Do we want to switch positions? Do we need a break?
The PPP originated from my deep fear of being unfuckable — as though my preparedness alone could compensate for the stigma around genital herpes and my lack of sexual experience with women and non-binary people. But the PPP has evolved just as I have. I have worked hard to dismantle my internalized STI stigma, homophobia and biphobia, and over time, the PPP’s meaning has changed. It’s no longer an anxiety-fueled tool for bolstering my credibility as a viable sex partner. Instead, it’s a tool I use to care for myself and my partners. In a world where discussions of both queerness and chronic STIs are silenced, the PPP is loud. It carries the message that my partners and I deserve sex that’s comfortable, safer and, ultimately, exciting.