Most people in this story will only be identified by their first names to protect their privacy.
At the end of July, Alyssa Parton, 22, received a call from her doctor. She had tested positive for both oral and genital herpes simplex virus. “I did not go to work that day,” she said. “I just cried.”
Parton wasn’t sure what it meant for her future. She is still in college, and wanted the chance to settle into a relationship and fall in love. “I thought my sex life was over,” she said.
Lying in her bed, Parton began searching for answers online. Her doctor hadn’t said much. On Facebook, she found a herpes support group and joined it. She watched a TED Talk by sex positivity and STI advocate Ella Dawson. And in her hunt, she came across Positive Singles, a site that advertised itself as the “world’s largest confidential herpes & STD dating & support community.”
Parton clicked on the site. The banner image was emblazoned with a photo of happy couples sitting by a lake. On her phone, she downloaded the app and made herself a profile. A mantra popped up onscreen. “Stay positive,” it read. What kind of catchphrase is that, she thought. Stay positive?
Genital herpes has always been a common diagnosis — about 16% of adults worldwide have genital herpes, and many do not realize they have it at all. (About half of all US adults have oral herpes caused by the virus HSV-1, which can cause painful mouth blisters or cold sores; genital herpes can be caused by either HSV-1 or HSV-2.)
But despite how ubiquitous the virus is, the stigma against herpes obscures the facts about it. Unlike chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, or other sexually transmitted infections, herpes doesn’t usually have serious health consequences in nonpregnant, healthy people, and medication can control outbreaks. STI panels don’t even routinely screen for herpes due to the risk of false positives or negatives.
However, the ignorance around it is still prevalent, so STI-focused dating apps offer an alternative solution to potential judgment from strangers. There are a number of sites to choose from: H Date, HSV Singles, Meet Positives, Meet People With Herpes. Positive Singles is one of the most popular dating platforms (there’s a site and an app) for people with herpes, as well as other sexually transmitted infections like HIV and chlamydia.
Alina, 25, also downloaded Positive Singles shortly after being diagnosed with herpes in 2019. She said she was attracted to the idea of finding a community that could empathize with her struggles. “But it never felt entirely like the most legit or safe app that I’ve ever used,” she said.
Successful Match, a dating company that owns niche dating sites like MillionaireMatch, InterracialMatch, SeniorMatch, and competitor site Meet People With Herpes, created Positive Singles in 2001. It boasts over 2.37 million users, according to its website, but it’s experienced increased scrutiny over the years. In 2014, Successful Match paid out $16.5 million in a settlement from a class action lawsuit after users accused the company of sharing private data with third parties from a centralized database, including users’ diagnoses. (In an email to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Positive Singles said, “The parties agreed as part of the settlement that there was no admission of any wrongdoing by PositiveSingles.com. PositiveSingles.com has always asserted that it takes appropriate measures to protect its members’ personal data.”)
Parton was only on the app for a month before deleting it. She said she felt the premise of an STI-specific dating app bred a particularly “aggressive” culture, shrouded in shame. “There are a lot of profiles where people do post their faces,” she said. “But there are a bunch where they don't.” One man messaged her 25 times in a row, even though Parton never opened any of the texts. She received several unsolicited pictures of strangers’ genitalia without any prior conversation.
“I even talked to someone who was like, ‘I'm never gonna date anyone who's not positive,’” she said. “I’ve met a few people who talk like that — nobody wants to date me. It honestly made me pretty sad that people on this app felt like they can't have a normal relationship, like it was just completely affected by having an STI.”
Dr. Maggie Dancel, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, explained that stigma can play a huge role in the emotional implications of being diagnosed with an STD. In addition to the physical symptoms, people coping with the diagnosis experience mental turmoil, too.
“There is significant shame, guilt, and embarrassment that one faces after someone is diagnosed with herpes,” Dancel said. “There is still a stigma about talking about sex, having too little or too much sex, and having nonheteronormative sex. … Stigma may also keep the person from engaging in a rich sexual life after the diagnosis.”
Christina, 30, deleted Positive Singles after three months of using it. She had been single for four years when she was diagnosed with HSV-2 and was interested in a relationship, but was “terrified” about reentering the dating pool.
“I didn’t feel comfortable staying on regular apps,” she told BuzzFeed News. “But I realized that basically forcing people to pay for this app was ridiculous when other platforms can be used for free and are still effective.”
A free account on Positive Singles will let you “like” profiles and send them “winks,” but in order to message anyone first, you need to buy a premium membership, which costs $35 per month. “It’s basically the only way to use the app,” Parton said. At least one person needs to have a premium membership in order to have a conversation — otherwise, you can’t talk at all. Other dating apps, like Hinge, Bumble, and Tinder, also have premiums in the same pricing ballpark, but they don’t require payment in order to chat.
“I paid for premium the last month, to see if it would boost my experience,” Alina said. “It did not.”
Tyler, 37, has been on Positive Singles for nearly two decades and has noticed some frustrating patterns. “Whenever I’m paying, I tend to notice there’s a lot less engagement with my profile,” he said. “But as soon as I’m not paying, there’s all these new notifications that say there are new profiles and new likes engaging with me, but you can’t see them, because you have to pay.”
Dating app marketing strategies like notification-spamming and dangling potential matches to create a curiosity gap aren’t really new, but Christina said she felt it was particularly gross to employ them toward newly diagnosed people battling shame. “It definitely feels as though [the platform] exploits people’s feelings of isolation and stigma as a result of their diagnosis through making it a paid platform,” she said. (Via email, a Positive Singles spokesperson responded, “We did not reproduce this problem. Users can easily contact our support anytime if they encounter any website issue.”)
When asked about users who were frustrated and felt exploited, the Positive Singles spokesperson sent several positive reviews and press clips, telling BuzzFeed News: “I don't think the majority of our users would agree to those complaints. We have over 3,400+ users who would like to share their successful dating stories on our site voluntarily, and lots of users even shared their wedding photos with us.”
Alina felt many people on the app were just really scared. “I would get a lot of first messages from people who wouldn’t even say hi, wouldn’t introduce themselves,” she said. “It would just be a really panicked message looking for validation and reassurance. I didn’t fit with them and they didn’t fit with me. We only had HSV in common.”
It’s easy to feel trapped in the confines of the virus. Gwen, 35, only went on one date from Positive Singles. She thought he seemed like a successful kind of guy, but he was uneasy with his diagnosis. “And I guess he felt embarrassed, or he felt guilty that he didn't want to give it to anybody else,” she said. “I wasn't really into him.”
“The issue is you have this problem,” Tyler said. “And you have to pay to communicate with people who also have this problem. I think in some ways that it’s kind of manipulative.”
At the same time, there have been some success stories from being on STI dating apps. Francesca Maglione, a 30-year-old comedian, told BuzzFeed News that using Positive Singles helped her feel more at ease with disclosing. “I did almost no research when I first got diagnosed,” she said. “It was the worst way you can go about having herpes.” After one sexual partner reacted poorly to her disclosing it, Maglione spent a long time afraid to tell anyone she slept with about her status. So she just didn’t.
It was a friend who encouraged Maglione to download the app. Together, they poked around for a while, sending likes and winks from her free profile. “I went on there to not feel judged,” she said. “I think that's probably a big factor as to why I never went on a lot of dates, because then I'd have to constantly disclose and get judged. But when I was on Positive Singles, I could just focus on if I liked this person or not.”
While swiping, she got a wink from an acquaintance she knew from the local comedy scene. Though it went against her rule of not dating other comedians, they set up a date, and Maglione felt a connection. He was the only person she met up with IRL from the app; they are now engaged. “It's helped me realize herpes is not a deal breaker,” she said.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson said: “PositiveSingles.com is not just an STD dating site but also an STD support platform. We are receiving so many positive feedbacks from our users every day saying that they finally find a comfortable space and thank us for creating such a great platform to help them find love.”
Dawson, the STI advocate, has openly criticized the premise of dating apps focused on STIs. “I think the entire business model is super unethical,” she told BuzzFeed News. “If you’re creating a service that relies upon shame and isolation and insecurity in order to have customers, if you’re benefiting from the fact that people who have STIs and are afraid to date and are struggling with their values, your business does more harm than good.”
Positive Singles has made an increasing effort to recruit prominent STI influencers as product ambassadors over the years. Dawson sent BuzzFeed News six individual instances of representatives asking her to partner with the brand as an influencer. The inquiries, sent from different personal Gmail addresses rather than a company domain, spanned seven years. The first came in 2015 — a year after their $16.5 million court-ordered payout. (When asked to confirm that these representatives worked with Positive Singles, a spokesperson responded, “We cannot expose any information about our affiliate partners. We will not check if they are our affiliate partners or not.”)
Dancel, the sex therapist, said an STI-specific dating platform has the potential to help those who are unable to escape the “damning and negative feelings associated with being diagnosed,” and ideally find an empathetic community where they can free themselves of societal shame. “But it may limit opportunities for growth and acceptance from the non-status community,” she said.
Though Tyler said he’s had better luck meeting people on other dating apps, he still keeps his Positive Singles profile so he can chat with people who are seeking support.
“All the apps kind of have their methods of scamming people in some capacity,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I keep my age [limits] open [on the app], not for dating, but because sometimes someone will message me, and they're like, This is new to me, and it’s scary. It says you’ve had this for a long time, would you maybe be down to chat just about your experiences? It's kind of nice to be able to have that community aspect. Because they’re 20 years old, just like I was, and they don’t have someone they could trust with that information.”
“People will put in their profiles, It’s so nice we don’t have to talk about this,” Tyler continued. “But ultimately, you still talk about it with the person, hear their story about how they got it and commiserate a little bit. You’re in the same club, and not many people are openly in that club. It’s nice to have some of that pressure released.”
Maglione is also still active on Positive Singles because she and her fiancé are nonmonogamous. “And even now, on my regular dating profile that’s not STI-specific, I just straight up put HSV 1/2+,” she said. “And so does my fiancé. And people still message me. We’ve gone on dates. That’s huge for me.”
In recent years, amid a sex-positive cultural push, many influencers have risen online to build communities for people with STIs that provide education and/or entertainment. Tyler thinks these online platforms have been key in helping to break the stigma.
“I think as a result of these influencers, people are developing a language very early on, on how to handle these kinds of like sexual situations, where otherwise they might not know,” he said.
Seeing other people speak out encouraged Parton, the college student, to open up about her status. On the fourth day of her diagnosis, she went to a bar with her friends and told them all she’d learned about herpes. “They were like, We never knew this. And they all left the bar with some information.”
Encouraged by the educational influencers she followed, Parton also began sharing public posts about living with the virus. She and a friend are even hoping to work in sex education after graduation, focusing on creating a more robust STI curriculum in schools.
“Someone commented on one of my Facebook posts, ‘Who posts that they have herpes online for attention?’ But people messaged me, who were not open about it, telling me they appreciated my posts. I mean, it’s just a shitty skin condition, really. That’s all it is.”
The rejection, to Parton, has become part of a prescreening for people she’s considering building a connection with. “It’s a good filter,” she said. “It’s also teaching me how to handle rejection better because, like, if they’re going to reject me and not want to get to know me because of a shitty skin condition, then I don’t need them to be in my life to begin with.”
Though she had a negative experience on the app, Parton said she would understand why someone else might want to use Positive Singles for validation or to find themselves again after a diagnosis. “If they want to find someone on there that can talk to them and make them feel more comfortable, that’s great. I’m not going to deny anyone doing what they need to do at that moment. But I’d also tell them they can talk to me about it.” ❤