How do I deal with my friend doing something I think is immoral?

Dear Bear,

When we first met, my close friend (we’ll call her Enid for privacy) had recently been cheated on and dumped by her boyfriend of four years. She was going through a lot of heartbreak and self esteem issues at that time, so she was kind of sleeping around. A few months later, she was diagnosed with genital herpes. My heart broke for her when she told me, and I was as supportive as I could be. I remember her telling me that when she got the news, her doctor told her she had to disclose this to every partner before having sex with them.

I vividly remember the first time after her diagnosis that she hooked up with another guy. She had texted me saying she was going to his house to hang out. I said something like, “Oh, so if you guys end up having sex, you’re gonna have to have the conversation?” And she said, “I’m not going to have sex with him.” A few hours later, she texted me saying, “That was the worst sex I’ve ever had.” I asked, “How did the conversation go?” She never texted me back.

Ever since then, I’ve been painfully aware of her sleeping with many other guys without disclosing to them. I’ve tried talking to her about it multiple times over the years, but she doesn’t seem to take it seriously. I think her way of coping with herpes is pretending she doesn’t have it.  It has always bothered me, but lately it’s been eating me alive.

She just got into a serious relationship for the first time since her ex of four years. His name is [redacted]. I don’t know him super well, but I’ve met him a few times, and he seems like a really nice guy with a good head on his shoulders. She’s been sleeping with him without any form of protection for the last 3 months, and he has no idea he could easily get a lifelong infection from her.

A few weeks ago, they somehow got on the topic of STDs. He mentioned that a friend of his has herpes, and then he literally told her that if she had herpes and didn’t tell him, he would dump her as soon as he found out. She was upset when telling me about this and acted like she knew she had to tell him and was going to figure out the best way and time to do so. I told her that sooner is better than later and that she should not have sex with him again until she tells him, because he would be even more upset if she continued having sex with him after that conversation. She agreed and said she would.

A week went by and I hadn’t heard anything. I also knew she had spent the night at his house at least once during that week. I reached out to her again with a long text message listing all of the consequences of not telling him. She said she had thought of all of that and that she would tell him as soon as she was ready.

Another week went by and she texted me saying something about having sex with him in her car. I was super upset and could not believe she was telling me that after everything I had expressed to her.

I can’t do this anymore. I feel like I am an accessory to a crime. What is my obligation in this situation? I feel awful standing by silently while he is in danger of contracting this incurable virus. I also do not want to lose this friendship. Please don’t tell me to end my friendship. If I tell him myself, my friendship will end. If I threaten to tell him myself, my friendship will end. What should I do?

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Oh, shit. I am so sorry you are having this cement block of hard stuff in the middle of your otherwise nice friendship.

I’m also sorry that I may not be able to give you the advice you need, in the end. You’ve signed off your letter by asking for a solution that isn’t “discuss this with her and make a compelling argument,” – you’ve done that, it hasn’t worked – and also isn’t “distance yourself from someone who keeps running a magnet over your moral compass until they stop doing that.” That doesn’t leave me much to work with but your reaction, Brave Correspondent, and I’m not super interested in meddling with your reaction.

The thing I value about your response to your friend’s behavior is that it shows your value matrix clearly and I think your values in this case are solid and defensible. Agreeing to have continuing, regular non-barrier sex with someone when you know that you have an virus that can be transmitted through sex and they don’t have that information is not a good moral look. Not just because of the sex part, or even the virus part. The issue, for me, is that this isn’t negotiation in good faith and if I’m in a romantic relationship with someone I want them to be negotiating in good faith.

When we sit down (or lie down) to negotiate, we’re either looking for a win – as in a business negotiation – or we are looking for the best mutual solution for everyone, like when we decide with five friends what we want on two pizzas. In a business negotiation, it’s reasonable to expect that everyone is looking out for their own best interest. You’re not friends; if there’s an ongoing relationship to protect it might be more collaborative but everyone at the table is trying to get as much of what they want and as little of what they don’t want. They might or might not hide information, lie, pretend, be dramatic – but we have to assume its a possibility (I just bought a car, can you tell?). There’s an assumption that strangers attempting to complete a transaction are at least to some degree each wanting the best deal for themselves – and this include random hookups. Everyone needs to protect their own interests. So I don’t love it that your friend is having unprotected sex with strangers and not disclosing her STI status, but I also want people – especially straight men; hello guys – to take responsibility for their own sexual health and not just download that labor onto their partners.

(If you, internet stranger, want to have sex with zero or minimal risk of infection during a casual hookup there are great ways to accomplish that – barriers are a way, selecting only types of sexual engagement that don’t risk virus transmission are another. Gd bless the cheerful sluts who take responsibility for their own health. Sorting people based on what they say or believe to be true about their own status is not a good way – people don’t always know their own situation and sometimes they’re not forthcoming and also there are good methods to get sexy with someone you’re feeling hot for regardless. So my sub-advice on this advice column is protect your health to your own standard and tolerance for risk.)

Herpes is also, of the STIs, not the biggest deal. Something like 80% of the population is a carrier for the virus, and most people get it when they’re infants or toddlers from being smooched by someone who is developing a cold sore and hasn’t noticed yet or doesn’t understand how contagious it is. Genital herpes isn’t some different, awful thing – it’s the result of someone receiving oral sex from someone who has a cold sore or is getting one, and with medication and occassional breaks from mucus-membrane-involved sex play it isn’t hard to avoid spreading.

Your friend is doing something that I believe is pretty morally questionable. She’s willfully hiding an important piece of information during the durational collaborative performance art known as “being in a relationship.” For sure, it’s not crucial to be forthcoming about every single thing at the first moment. You can reveal in the fullness of time things like your Magic: The Gathering Champions Medal or that you love ranch dressing on your scrambled eggs or even that you tried to commit suicide as a teen or gave a baby up for adoption. I recommend that the major ones are revealed somewhere in the 12-18 month window, because that’s late enough that you can tell if someone is going to be a serious person in your life but not so late that they have any cause to complain. But this item – her genital herpes – has a direct and specific potential effect on her partner, and she needs to tell him.

My guess is that probably when he was just a hookup she skipped the disclosure, and then there was an awkward part between one-night stand and oh-this-is-my-boyfriend now where they were still having unprotected sex and then she couldn’t find the wherewithal to go back and say “oh, uh, since this is going to be an ongoing thing you should know I have herpes,” because he would have very probably freaked out and said “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THIS BEFORE?” and that’s a reasonable question also, and it would have been all done. So my guess is that she now finds herself in a bind from which there is no honorable escape and is hoping she can simply never tell him – that either she’ll never have an outbreak again or if she does he won’t notice, neither of which is likely. And now she feels stuck (and probably resentful of some dude who gave her genital herpes at some point in the past) and is just sticking her head in the sand and pretending to be invisible. Which is simultaneously understandable, dangerous, and probably not going to work. The worst part about avoidance is that it pretty well always delivers us directly into the slavering jaws of whatever we were trying to avoid in an even worse version (I know, I hate it too, but here we are).

Okay, so: what should you do?

Brave Correspondent, I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but there’s no third option where you magically become okay with your friend’s behavior or where she spontaneously chooses to tank her new relationship by disclosing her HSV status. Does that suck? Yes, and I’m sorry, but here we are. Clearly there’s a moral tension caused by being friends with someone who’s behaving in this way and telling you all about it if it makes you feel, as you said in your email subject line, like “an accessory to a crime.”

You could try telling her that you don’t want to hear anything else about her sex life or sexual exploits or sex thoughts if this is how she’s going to conduct herself. Maybe it would feel less upsetting to you if you can relegate the whole business to an “out of sight, out of mind” category? It feels worth a try, anyhow, and it might help make the point how bad it is for you. That will probably be a boundary you have to enforce stringently, though, so before you offer it I would recommend that you get clear in your own head about what happens if she goes ahead and does the thing you asked her not to do.

Or, you may need to get okay with the idea that you’ve got one last try to make the strongest possible case to your friend. This is the Hail Mary pass, the last ditch attempt, so pull out all the stops and lay it out for her: you can’t be friends with someone who continues behaving in this way and you need her to stop or you can’t be around her. Give a timeline; in two weeks (or whatever) she needs to disclose to the boyfriend. Send her this excellent article from our friends at Scarleteen about disclosing an STI. And let her know you’ll be there to support her (and make a specific plan around this) but she needs to be truthful with him and that’s your bottom line. (You should also think ahead about the next question: if this results in a breakup and she goes back to unprotected casual sex, what then?)

Either way, Brave Correspondent, this is hard stuff. For you but probably for her too. She may be struggling with her own sexual shame or feelings of being undesirable, and that’s difficult stuff – especially for someone who is looking for love and romance. I hope you can figure out a way between the two of you to stay friends and both feel better about this situation before too long.

love and courage,

Bear

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