Nearly four years ago, I was diagnosed with genital herpes.
I thought my life was over. That no one would ever want to date me or have sex with me again. I felt alone, isolated, like I’d have to quarantine myself. What made it worse was that a good friend of mine even stigmatized me – saying that if I slept over at her place, I’d have to use toilet seat covers and hand sanitizer, as if I had some sort of plague.
But it was because of my diagnosis that I learned the truth about herpes, and saw first-hand just how much sex education had failed me. Turns out, my fears were pretty unfounded.
Digital Pride is the only global Pride dedicated to enabling everyone to be part of a Pride, whoever they are and wherever they live in the world. This year, we are focusing on tackling loneliness and isolation. It takes place on Gay Star News from 29 April to 5 May 2019. Find out more.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), two-thirds of the world’s population lives with HSV-1 (the strain of herpes that typically causes cold sores). Additionally, about 1 in 6 Americans has HSV-2 (the strain that typically causes genital herpes), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
However, it’s important to note that either strain of the virus can live on either location, mouth or genitals. In my case, for instance, I have genital HSV-1, which I likely contracted by receiving oral sex. The virus can also spread without a visible outbreak, due to a phenomenon called viral shedding.
There was no sign of a cold sore on the beautiful face of the guy who gave me the virus.
When I contracted herpes, I did everything ‘right’. I used a condom, I got tested myself and asked my partner if he had been tested recently. That’s basically all they tell you to do in sex ed. They didn’t tell us about the different strains of herpes or how you can contract STIs from oral sex. They didn’t tell us about dental dams for oral sex (not that it would have mattered that much, as dental dams aren’t available at the drugstore like condoms are).
Speaking of condoms, they aren’t 100% effective in stopping the spread of herpes, as the virus is spread via skin-to-skin contact and condoms don’t cover the whole area that comes into contact during intercourse. Additionally, the standard STI panel does not screen for herpes, as it’s so common.
Even people who are the most adamant about getting tested may still have herpes without knowing it.
It was only because of my diagnosis that I learned these facts, and began to dissect the stigma of herpes myself, though a feminist lens.
In my opinion, STI stigma is a feminist issue. It ties into things like sex positivity, body positivity, slut shaming, and victim blaming.
The guy who gave me herpes blamed me. My mom, who has had cold sores herself in the past, refuses to candidly talk to me about my experience. And if I speak openly about this online, it’s basically guaranteed I will be called a slut, a liar, dirty, a whore, and so on. It’s something I’ve had to accept as the price for speaking about this openly to help destigmatize it.
Big Pharma’s role
Doing my own research, I learned the stigma of herpes is a pretty recent phenomenon. People have been living with the virus for centuries, but it only became so heavily stigmatized in the 1980s.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), that was around the time Big Pharma created the first antiviral drug to treat the virus. In an August 1982 issue of TIME Magazine, the cover story deemed the virus ‘Today’s Scarlet Letter’.
Now, stigmatizing herpes (especially in women) is commonplace in comedy. Think about that line in The Hangover: ‘Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas – except for herpes, that shit’ll come back with you.’ It’s also quite common for comedians and writers to compare anything they dislike or anything undesirable to herpes (Trevor Noah has done this, as has John Oliver, as has Michelle Wolf).
But here’s the thing: herpes isn’t taboo or gross or creepy. It’s quite possible that people making jokes about herpes have the virus themselves and don’t even know it. Check out the Adam Ruins Everything video below to learn more about herpes stigma and how trivial the virus actually is. And remember: if you’re diagnosed with herpes, it’s by no means the end of the world and you’re not alone.
What is Digital Pride?
Digital Pride is the online movement, by Gay Star News, so you can take part in Pride whoever and wherever you are. Even if you are from a country where being LGBTI is criminalized or leaves you in danger – it’s a Pride festival you can be a part of.
In 2019, Digital Pride is tackling loneliness and isolation with articles and videos connecting LGBTI people. Join us by reaching out to someone who needs it. The festival takes place on Gay Star News from 29 April to 5 May 2019. Find out more.