Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, I look forward to your questions. And I'm so excited that D.C. is getting a real snowstorm!
Q. STD Meds: to Take or Not to Take: The guy I lost my virginity to (about 20 years ago) was not as forthcoming about certain things as my naive teenage self expected him to be. As a result, I got herpes the moment I lost my virginity. I've worked through the initial feelings of having an STD years ago and have lived very comfortably since then. I've always been completely open and careful with partners and, to my knowledge, have not passed it along to anyone. The only times I've ever taken medication for it were when I was younger, the outbreaks were more frequent and more severe, and I was still learning how to manage my health and be aware of my body. Now I only have one or two mild outbreaks a year, if that. I've never been on suppressive therapy until recently, at the urging of the guy I'm currently seeing. He knew before we started dating about my "condition," and asked me if I would go on suppressive therapy in order to reduce the risk for him. Initially I was fine with this—I completely understand his cautious attitude and I wanted to do my part to "protect" him. However, this leaves me taking a pill twice a day, and what was for a long time just a background issue and occasional mild annoyance is now a daily presence. Am I being selfish and thoughtless for wanting to stop taking this medication, knowing that it puts somebody I care about at a greater risk?
A: Let me start by using your experience as a public service announcement. My gynecologist told me he is seeing a startling rise in the number of young women in his practice being diagnosed with herpes. It turns out that they think having gotten the Gardasil shot to protect them from HPV, that they are invulnerable to other STDs—and they're not! Herpes is for life, and even if, as you've discovered, it's no more than a minor annoyance, if you were the one who didn't have it, you might have your own strong desire not to contract it. Give your boyfriend credit that he's willing to run this risk for the pleasure of being with you. I hear from many people with herpes who tell me their potential partner actually runs when they reveal this news. I also understand your lack of desire to permanently be on a systemic, suppressive medication for what is to you a very occasional and trivial health problem. Although it's the opposite of erotic, I think you two should read through all the information on this CDC website about herpes, and talk about the risks to him of simply letting you monitor your own health, and the risks to you of being on medication (for as long as you're together). Since this is a new relationship, the best compromise might be to stay on the meds and see where things go. If the romance peters out, you put away the meds. If you two become a permanent item, you revisit the question of risk.
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Q. Oh That Smell: Recently my 30-year-old stepson moved to town. He has many issues (including alcoholism). My issue is that I can't stand the way he smells. He wears a musty, rank, cologne that lingers for hours, or even days, unless we wash or deodorize any fabrics in the room. Car rides are horrible. We have politely asked him several times not to use it, and I even suggested that the mild chemotherapy I take might make me extra sensitive to smells. I bought him a different scent to try out, but to no avail. Tonight, he showed up reeking again, and I grabbed my car keys and went back to work. I'm battling a serious, chronic illness, so working extra hours is not more than a temporary solution. It seems ridiculous to be focusing on a smell, when my stepson can't manage independent living, but its nostril-popping bad. How do I deal with this without putting my husband on the defensive or becoming an evil stepmom?
A: If he's dousing himself with cologne before a visit it may be to cover the smell of his poor hygiene or the reek of alcohol. It could also be that this scent has permeated all his clothing and even if he's not slapping it on, his dirty clothes just permanently exude it. You're right that chemotherapy can make even the most benign smells nauseating, so you are certainly within bounds to want to keep noxious aromas out of your house. If the cologne is as bad as you say, then this is going to have global effects on your stepson's ability to make friends or find employment. This is something his father should talk to him about. Respectfully, your husband should explain that you cannot be around scents and that you'd both appreciate if he got his outerwear dry-cleaned, he laundered his clothes, and showered before coming. If your stepson just won't do this, then your husband has to visit his son at his place or a neutral spot. Unless your stepson freshens up, the mere sight of him is going to create a stomach-turning Pavlovian response in you.
Q. My 70-Year-Old Husband Watches Porn Online: My husband of 12 years has apparently taken to viewing porn on the Internet. He knows basically nothing about computers, but acquired enough skills to Google and browse pornographic sites. He is a healthy and active 70-year-old but has E.D. issues. He also doesn't know that I know what he views online. I am not sure if I should just keep quiet or tell him what I have discovered. I don't want to embarrass him, as I think he will feel embarrassed if his habit is discovered. He is only on the Internet when I am not in the house—so he does try to hide it. It kind of creeps me out, but on the other hand this might be something that many older men actually do, but is not talked about publicly.
A: This sounds like a recipe for your husband contracting a virus—on your computer. There are several issues here. One is that I believe a married person is entitled to look at porn, as long as this hobby is not obsessive, does not interfere with the primary relationship, and does not contain illegal content. The other is your husband's functional problem. His viewing habits are a sign that his flagging sexual ability does not mean his libido is dead. So if you're interested in physical intimacy, take the porn viewing as a good thing. Next month, watch the Super Bowl with him. The advertisements that aren't for beer or trucks are about drugs to help football fans get it up. After one of these, turn to him and suggest that maybe the two of you should investigate side by side bathtubs.
Q. Re: STD meds: If you decide to stop taking the pill, you should fully inform him. Don't be surprised if he decides to end the relationship. You're basically saying that a mild inconvenience is more important than his health. Also, you might want to check into other medication. I take the generic form of Valtrex, which is one pill a day. I've never had an outbreak in the five years I've had herpes, currently don't have a partner, and am STILL taking the pill.
A: I agree that the medication decision should not be a unilateral one. And thanks for the suggestion about looking into all the pharmaceutical alternatives.
Q. House Boundaries: How do I keep guests within the boundaries I wish to set in my house? That is, I use my downstairs for entertaining and I do not wish (or see the need for) any guest to go upstairs where the bedrooms are. At a recent Christmas party, I found adults upstairs looking through bookcases. I had another say "Oh, Jamie just wants to see what your daughter's room looks like ..." Why do people think it is permissible to roam throughout when all the food/activity is down in the living area?
A: I agree people shouldn't wander around other's homes unless invited, but lots of people are happy to give house tours to guests or let them look around. In your case, close all the doors to the personal quarters and if guests start to wander upstairs, direct them to the powder room on the first floor. If you find people snooping you can gently lead them out saying, "I promised Melissa I would keep her room private."