Queen of Hearts

Left with nothing but anger and a STD

Dear Carol,
In the past a boyfriend left me with a sexually transmitted disease. I suppose I could find him again if I tried, but he is no longer in my life on any basis. I would be happy never seeing him again, or so I thought. But when this situation came up in therapy, I couldn’t seem to let go of my anger. Now I want to track him down just so I can confront him. I keep going around and around that it was wrong of him to give me something like that and then take no responsibility (just as this was happening, we broke up). Isn’t it wrong for a person to give someone else a disease? I am just so furious. Do you think I should contact him over this unfinished business? What should I say? –Betrayed

Dear Betrayed,
There are a few tough and very recurrent questions in my biz, and this is one of them. Almost no one is happy to find that they have an STD, and this culture encourages us to blame the person we got it from. There’s a whole different valence, as we used to say in the sociology business, on an STD than on a case of the flu or even something more serious, because we catch an STD through having sex and we tend to think of sex as a separate category–distinct from the rest of our lives. In the very big picture, getting gonorrhea or HIV isn’t enormously different than getting the flu or tuberculosis–except that in the case of the former, we’ve usually taken off our pants and done some version of the mucous membrane dance. Maybe we thought we had an exclusive relationship and we were safe from such unpleasant facts of life as germs. This may be your case, though you don’t specify in your letter.

Is it wrong to give someone an STD? Well, yes, you could say that, just as it’s wrong to leave the house when we have a cold. In terms of your own experience, it’s not clear whether your partner knew he had a disease and passed it to you in a negligent way (that is, not disclosing to you he had something contagious, not making an effort to protect you through safer sex techniques) or if he gave you a bug unknowingly, the way we can pass along the flu a day or two before symptoms start. Ethically speaking, you might decide there’s a difference between those two scenarios, whether or not you remain just as angry at having gotten the disease. You might also consider whether your ex went on to infect again (if he was that kind of guy, you should probably call the public health department, which will make an effort to track down and counsel him and also do contact tracing to alert others). Does that put him in a different box than a guy who would go get taken care of and expose no one else to his disease?

Besides the fact that catching an STD can bring up more shame and anger than getting other kinds of diseases, your situation is complicated by the circumstances of your breakup: It sounds like you feel betrayed by that, too, not just the disease. I get the impression that he didn’t stick around to say he was sorry–maybe even that you found out about the disease after he’d split. That can exacerbate bitter feelings, to put it mildly. I’m not surprised that you remain upset.

But should you contact him? Would you be better able to put this behind you if you did? I think your therapist has to help you make that decision, and you have to look at your motives in desiring to do it. Are you impelled to talk to him because your communication with him is unfinished and you want, as my mother would have said, “to cloud up and rain all over him”? Do you want an apology? (Is that realistic, given what you know of his character?) Is your motivation like that of an alcoholic intervention–to jolt him out of his irresponsibility and make sure he takes care of himself and future partners? (Calling the health department might accomplish the same thing.) What do you want from this, and are you likely to get it? If the answer to the latter question is probably no, I’d suggest one of the therapy techniques that let you vent your spleen: Write him a vehement letter and mail it to the North Pole; imagine a pillow is him, get the Nerf bat out, and give it to him good; imagine him sitting across from you and say every built-up thing you have to say. (Do this in your therapists’ office–their neighbors are used to the howls of rage emanating from the room.)

If you want to forgive him after that, you might find it easier to do; remember, it is possible he didn’t know he had something for you to catch, and it’s also possible that when he found out, he was so freaked out and felt so ashamed that he couldn’t face you. Then again, he might be a dangerous jerk. If that’s the case, you are well rid of him.

Calling his behavior wrong is pretty easy to do; in your place, most of us would be inclined to do it, and I’m sure you have most readers’ sympathy. But I must remind you, and every sexually active person, that we are each ultimately responsible for our own well-being, and knowing about (and using) safer sex techniques is the best way to keep the bugs away. They have no moral and ethical stake in this discussion at all.

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