I’m no stranger to the sex party scene. I feel just as ease being tied up and flogged at a kink event as I do mingling at a posh private swingers’ party. My sexual proclivities run the gamut – to say the least.
What Going to a Play Party With HSV-2 Taught Me About STIs
When I was recently invited a friend’s private sex party after an HSV-2 diagnosis, I admit, I was a bit nervous. Sure, I’ve advocated for pleasure and sex-positivity and awareness for more than two decades as a sex writer. I didn’t blink an eye about having to share this news with my partners and potential dates. But having to disclose it in an impromptu sexual situation? That was a whole different story. Something about having to make an on-the-spot disclosure made me feel undesirable, much more so than having the exact same conversation on a date would.
I’ve written I-don’t-know-how-many articles on the importance of knowing your STI/STD status. Ditto for how to make *the conversation* less awkward. I’ve rolled this speech and all its “what if” scenarios around in my mind hundreds of times. I felt informed and confident when I eventually had to tell my existing partners. And, as expected, all of them handled it with the utmost kindness and compassion (except for one occasional play partner, whose wife had a non-negotiable, no-STD stance).
Still, taking this brand-new STD status to a sex party, where decisions are made on the spot, unnerved me.
I was nervous about going to the party. I get that going to a sex party doesn't necessarily guarantee you’re going to have sex. But as a solo female, aka the highly coveted "unicorn," it’s highly likely that you’re going to be propositioned. You still have to negotiate sex between all potential partners, but it’s much more spontaneous than having the conversation mid-way through, I don’t know, let’s say your third date.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve taken the route of being honest and upfront about it as early as possible. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having HSV-2. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 3.7 billion people under age 50 (67%) have HSV-1 infection globally, while an estimated 417 million people aged 15-49 (11%) worldwide have HSV-2 infection. It’s incredibly common.
I’ve never had an outbreak, I’m on a daily antiviral and with consistent barrier use, my doctor tells me the rate of transmission is less than 1%. Those are stats I can live with. Yet conveying this information – in the moment and while assuaging everyone's concerns – is a different story.
I went to the sex party with as much confidence as I could muster. In everyday life and typical scenarios, I'm a very confident person. Not much phases me, and I rarely allow the opinions of others to affect me. But this added baggage weighed on me.
I made up my mind early on: if I didn’t have any sexual interactions, it would be OK. I try to go into such situations with minimal expectations (and hope to be pleasantly surprised) but set the bar at the absolute lowest.
At the party, I was hit on, as expected. I flirted and touched and allowed myself to be touched in a sexy, clothed fashion. I even made out with a few people before things progressed too far. Two couples made serious advances of the “we-would-like-to-fuck-you” variety. I wasn’t particularly attracted to either of them but saw the opportunity to try my HSV-2 spiel on them. I had absolutely nothing to lose.
In your standard-issue date situation, it’s usually a one-on-one dynamic. There’s time to talk, and in most cases, no one’s rushing from the bar to bedroom. It’s different at a sex party, where hookups happen with far fewer formalities.
Still, it's essential to have the STI/STD talk. I don't care how fast you hop into bed with anyone, just be sure to know your partner’s STI/STD status. This means asking them when they were last tested, what they were tested for and what their test results were. Clear communication is necessary to weigh potential risk factors, because no barrier is 100% effective. Condoms break or may slip off. There’s a whole host of stuff that can go wrong.
I ended up not having sex with anyone the night of the party, probably because I was being weird and overly cautious. If I had, I would’ve had the STI/STD talk, then followed it by barrier use, and possibly limited myself to activities unlikely to transmit pathogens, like oral sex.
There’s something immensely comforting about being able to disclose an STI/STD diagnosis on your own terms and timeline that a sex party doesn’t exactly allow for. I’m hoping that I'll get more comfortable with practice because the first pass felt really awkward and heightened every insecurity I didn’t even know I had. STI/STDs are so stigmatized. They’re the brunt of endless jokes and often cause a negative reaction. It’s no wonder we have a hard time talking about incurable viruses when we do have them.
My best advice? Get tested consistently. Require it from your partners. Make it common practice. At most, HSV-2 is going to be an annoying skin irritation (if and when a breakout does happen). In the meantime, I don’t need to let it define me. I just need to get better at using my words and navigating this situation - particularly at sex parties.
Ryn Pfeuffer is a versatile print and digital writer specializing in sex, lifestyle, and relationship topics. Over the past two decades, her work has appeared in more than 100 media outlets including Marie Claire, Playboy, Refinery29, The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, WIRED, and Thrillist.
She adopted a pseudonym and was AVN’s (Adult Video Network) first female porn reviewer – while penning children’s books at the same time. More recently, she is the author of 101 Ways to Rock Online Dating (2019). She lives in Seattle with her rescue dog, Mimi. You can find her on Twitter @rynpfeuffer or IG @ryn_says