After these necessary security leaks (or, at least, two of the three), I kept my herpes totally private and tried to move about undetected as best I could, sex-wise. I avoided cute boys for months because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to muster the courage to give my “I have herpes!” disclaimer out loud and end up having sex with someone without telling them out of cowardice. I was just as scared of what would happen if I could manage to get it out—and they ran out of my bedroom in disgust.

That has never happened to me, but because I didn’t think I knew anyone else with an STI, I set about making the membership rules of Club Herpes myself, in secrecy. I invented club bylaws like, “Don’t flirt too much,” and, “Don’t forget you’re gross.” I longed for the days when I took people home from parties, shrilly laughing at their bad jokes, then bid them adieu the next day. But that would never be me again, I thought: The risk of taking home a rando who would insult and embarrass me, like my ex-boyfriend had, was too great. All this isolation and shame, despite the fact that, according to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans have genital herpes.

Then I met somebody who I liked a lot, and who liked me. I had to think: How can this attraction grow, given the club’s restrictions and requirements? The days wore on, and then, all of a sudden, we were on a date—then hooking up. Clothes were coming off, and it was time to momentarily pause the action and tell him that I had herpes, which I did as plainly as I just did in this sentence. He was fine with it. He didn’t recoil in fear—he didn’t even move the hand that rested on my stomach. He did ask questions—namely, about whether it was safe to have sex with a condom. I answered them as best I could—yes, as long as I wasn’t having an outbreak. So we did! We also started dating, and that first time was only the beginning of our mature conversations and extremely fun nights.

For all my Club Herp members out there, I’ve drawn up a blueprint when it comes to disclosing your STI status to someone you’re getting intimate with for the first time, whether they’re a potential boyfriend, total rando, or WHOMEVER. Mind you, you may not always get it out this smoothly, and that’s OK. Just know that, with practice, you will eventually become Ms. STI Suave (or something)! This plan can be enacted the moment you decide you are trying to interact with someone’s genitals in a way that does not involve clothing, or that you’re down for them to interact with yours in a similar manner. Don’t sleep on making this announcement until the moment you’re actually dry-humping, girl! Think ahead about what your feelings are, and about how far you want to go. Aren’t 100 percent sure you’re going to hook up with this person? Doesn’t matter! The plan works anyway.

Maneuver your crush into a one-on-one conversation, preferably in a place with intimate seating and reasonably low background noise. (I think it’s fine if it’s on the phone, but in-person is better so that they can see how cute you are while you do this.) Now, BREATHE. If you’re super chill and confident about this, your maybe-partner’s gonna pick up that easygoing vibe and be like, Oh, cool, this isn’t the end of the world at all! Segue the conversation into a story about yourself that begins, “The other day, I was having a herpes attack, so I wasn’t feeling 100 percent, you know?” and then start gushing about the sick concert tickets you bought or the trip to the basketball court you took to make yourself feel better.

There are two paths the conversation might take after your casual tale of herpes and whatever cool thing you like that you mentioned. The first option: It becomes a chat about your amazing taste in music or reverse layup while your potential boo privately ruminates about the fact that just disclosed your STI status without feeling like they’re on the spot and having to make a split-second decision about how they feel about it. The second: They might say something like, “Oh, you have herpes? Can you still _____?” And then you can be like, “I’m glad you asked! Let me tell you some basic herpes facts.” At this point, you can pretend you are Dr. Ruth and are educating the masses. Since so many people have herpes, your person should know about this stuff regardless of whether the two of you hook up! (If they like you, by the way, they’re still gonna want to hang out with you, and eventually, if all goes according to plan and you’re super cool and sexy and send them really adorable chains of emojis like I know you’re capable of doing, hook up with you.)

Just like every other part of the infection, prevention is just another thing I discuss with my sexual partners. When you do that, it’s way less scary for everyone involved, and it’s hard to be turned on when you’re nervous about a condition you know nothing about. Some stuff to tell them: There is no 100 percent safe way to avoid getting herpes through sexual contact, but avoiding kissing when you have a cold sore, using condoms, and avoiding other skin-on-skin contact with a partner when you know you’re having an outbreak is the best form of prevention. You can practice selective abstinence in these situations, like performing oral and manual sex on a partner when you’re having an outbreak on your genitals. You just have to be SUPER careful in these instances. Make sure everyone’s washing their hands and avoiding touching the body parts that are going through an outbreak. The virus, which lives in a person’s cells, can travel up to the surface of the skin sometimes without causing any visible symptoms. I deal with this by taking an antiviral medication like Acyclovir, which helps cut down on the incidence of outbreaks and these asymptomatic periods, which are known as “shedding.” I have outbreaks about once a year, and they’re pretty mild, but the frequency and severity will vary from person to person. Mine usually take the form of a ball bearing–sized sore or two on my inner labia, and last around four days. After you’ve rattled off some or all of these facts (depending on what the person wants to know), mentally exhale a sigh of relief and resume flirting your ass off. You deserve it.

Sometimes I still feel like pulling the collar of my Club Herpes membership jacket over my face. I get shy when someone asks to borrow my lip gloss (this is to be avoided), or when I realize I’m getting an outbreak. But would you believe me if I said sometimes I’m happy to have the herp? Testing positive for an STI—especially one with such relatively minor symptoms, like HSV-1 and -2—means that it’s not just that I don’t sleep with people who hold the antiquated (and wrong) idea that a positive STI status is an indicator of low moral character. I’ve realized that the warning signs I look for about whether a person will have an irrational reaction to my STI status should also just be avoided in general!

If a person makes fun of other people’s sexual activity, is mean to people who are not in positions of power, can’t be bothered to take care of their own sexual health, and/or isn’t open to non-judgmental conversations about sex, it’s not just an indication that they won’t be very understanding about STIs, but also that they’re probably not a lot of fun to have sex with, anyway. Life gets awkward sometimes. It’s a fact! So when push comes to shove, you want people around that can roll with the punches. And that extends to the people you get naked with. Once I recalibrated my tastes towards non-assholes, I found that most nice, understanding people continue to be nice and understanding when you share your STI status with them!

Nowadays, I tell any and everyone about my membership in Club Herpes. I make jokes about it with my friends, parents, and even my crushes, when I’m really feeling my badass, sexually mature self. Being casual about my herpes—which is a casual thing in actuality!—helps to further disarm the sense of isolation I had when I first got my diagnosis. I’ve learned that many of friends, family members, and role models have herpes or another STI, and that it’s pretty normal baggage to be walking around with when you’re a sexually active person. When we retreat into silence about this stuff, it can make us feel as though we’re all alone in a secret society of one. If we all just talked about it, like you’d talk about a cold you had, or a pimple on your face, herpes wouldn’t retain its current stigma. Today, if someone were to call me names for being STI positive, I would never apologize but, instead, bid them adieu like any other asshole in my life. It’s a pretty good deal when I think about it: Yeah, I caught herpes, but I got rid of jerks…and got to join my very first secret society! Although I’m very glad the secret’s out now. ♦

Got herpes too? Go here and here for information and support.