Three days after getting dumped, I landed in my hometown of Chicago for the holidays and received the best Christmas present anyone rebounding like Dennis Rodman could ask for — a message from an old fling about meeting up when I was in town. But by the time our plans rolled around a few days later, I woke up congested and achy. So I texted him that I might be coming down with a cold, and that it was up to him if he wanted to see me.
“You could’ve just said you’re not feeling it,” he responded, reading my caution and passion for informed consent as cowardly rejection. We didn’t reschedule or speak again.
Maybe the subsequent fever ruined the satisfaction of being right, but honesty did not feel like the best policy in this case. In the past, I would have kept my symptoms a secret or convinced myself I wasn’t sick. I minimize cold and flu symptoms to power through work all the time, like most Americans, so why wouldn’t I do the same to get laid?
But it seemed like bad sex karma to lie, especially when I expect men to disclose more serious risks such as sexually transmitted diseases.
In reality, many people fail to inform partners about STDs for the same reasons they do the flu — they’re in denial about what their symptoms are and the risks they present to others. And when slightly-sick people are more likely to put off going to the doctor than put off going on a Tinder date, hookup culture is a perfect storm for getting strep. The treatment for chlamydia is one day of antibiotics compared to a 10-day course of antibiotics for strep. Given the relative consequences, then, any contagious illness could be considered an STD if it took sex to contract it.
Misconceptions about what common ailments are contagious might complicate these matters further, making honesty even more difficult, allergist and immunologist Kathleen Dass acknowledges. While people don’t catch colds from kissing exactly, they typically pass germs by coughing. And since most bacterial and viral infections are transmitted through airborne droplets and not saliva, someone doesn’t have to cough in your mouth to get you sick. They just have to cough in close proximity to you, like in the same bed. “If you’re coughing, sneezing or having fevers, you should avoid close intimate contact since that increases the likelihood of the other person developing the infection,” Dass recommends. “This remains true, too, if you have any other infectious respiratory tract infection like influenza or bronchitis.”
Yet there is evidence that having sex boosts the immune system and would theoretically help protect against a potential cold. Unfortunately, this is rarely how it works out. When Tara, a 36-year-old bar manager, lost her virginity in college, she couldn’t be bothered by her brewing cough. Already a late bloomer approaching her 19th birthday, she drove to visit Matt, a straight-edge guy in a punk band she met over the summer, who went to school about an hour away from her. “It was a really bad cold, but I covered up being sick just because I really wanted it to happen,” she tells me. “I didn’t want to look like I was chickening out, wasn’t ready or wasn’t interested. I was super interested.”
They had sex, and afterward, she told Matt that she hoped he didn’t get sick because she very much was. He didn’t get sick or upset, and they dated for the next three years, which she suspects would have happened even if he did catch whatever she had.
The same was true for Ed, a 28-year-old film projectionist, who woke up with a scratchy throat and inflamed tonsils the day before a second date with a girl he met on Bumble. “I had a feeling I was coming down with something that was more than just a cold,” he says. “We hadn’t had sex yet, so I was trying to ignore how sick I was feeling in case she wanted to have sex that night.”
Over sushi, Ed proceeded to lose his voice, only eating his miso soup. They still, however, went back to his place, where they started making out. He could tell he looked like death because she stopped and asked if he was going to pass out. Nonetheless, he soldiered on. “She remembers me getting undressed and getting a condom, but I was shivering the entire time,” he says. “I had a full-blown fever at this point.” After about five minutes of struggling, he stopped, apologized and asked if they could reschedule for another time. Like Tara, Ed was lucky enough to not get his partner sick, and two years later, they’re still together. “She thought it was endearing,” he tells me.
Ed’s and Tara’s experience felt wildly unfair compared to mine. Their omissions led to sex and subsequent relationships, but all my disclosure got me was a dude who didn’t want to talk to me anymore. “It’s a bit of an exaggeration to treat all potential illnesses like STDs when there’s sex involved,” psychologist and relationship coach Alexis Taylor says. “Not everyone will catch a flu from their partner if they have sex, and if they catch it, it isn’t a serious disease.”
Still, Dass believes, “If you have a casual hookup, disclosing that you have a cold is the right thing to do — even if you might never see the person again. This is even more true if you have the flu or pneumonia, which can be deadly.”
Pharmacist and CEO of Honeybee Health Jessica Nouhavandi agrees, “While the flu or a cold might not be as extreme as STDs, the idea is the same: You should disclose anything that might put the health of your partner at risk.”
Eighteen years after losing her virginity, Tara may have learned her lesson after the norovirus recently left her and her current boyfriend incapacitated for days. She felt a little off the day before, but told herself it was something she ate — partly because that was a possibility, but partly because she wanted to have sex. “We live together and kiss a lot, so he was probably going to get it either way,” Tara says. Her boyfriend, however, was turned off by the entire experience. “I promised I’d be more careful in the future,” she tells me.
In a perfect world, safe sex would also mean abstaining from it when you have anything more than a stuffy nose and headache. But given her imperfect track record, Tara understands why many people don’t abide by this rule when they’re not feeling well and think sex might make them feel slightly better. And when her past boyfriend and Ed’s girlfriend have been so forgiving about this specific type of dishonesty, it’s easy to assume others will be as well — either because sexual rejection can feel worse than a head cold or because they’ve been guilty of the same indiscretion.
So for most people, the right thing to do falls somewhere in the middle: They should disclose their cold- or flu-like symptoms, but don’t feel all that guilty when they don’t.
When I bring up the comparison to STD disclosure, Tara agrees that everyone should obviously tell their partners if they have an STD (after all, knowingly spreading an STD can lead to civil and criminal charges). But she also suspects that if STDs were destigmatized like other illnesses, people would be more open about them, too. “It’s weird because I’d totally rather have chlamydia than strep,” she laughs. “And I’ve had both!”