I have herpes.
But not the kind you probably just reacted to.
I have herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1, which most commonly causes oral infections, although one time I had a cold sore in my nose which was weird. HSV type 2 is the strain usually associated with genital herpes, although both types can be transmitted sexually.
Ever since I started getting cold sores I’ve been relieved that I have the “good” type of herpes, and not the “bad” type. Like many women, I’ve catastrophised about what would happen if I got genital herpes. No one would ever want to have sex with me. People would think I was promiscuous. I’d never be able to have a baby.
But a recent post on Instagram made me stop and think whether everything I’ve ever thought about genital herpes was actually deeply, deeply unfair.
THIS, THIS, THIS! I have genital herpes, type 1 (WHICH IS THE SAME VIRUS AS “COLDSORES”, but people with oral herpes have less of a stigma). It’s so important to realize how common this is and to know that type 1 can be transmitted sexually and non-sexually! There are teenagers on Tumblr writing about wanting to kill themselves over this. END THE STIGMA ❗️❗️❗️ #herpes #sti #coldsores
The post, shared by Guerrilla Feminism, is directed at “those who chose to reject someone simply because they disclosed their herpes status,” and presents a strong argument as to why this is logically flawed.
“85% of people who have herpes have no idea,” the post says. “Of those who are aware they have herpes only half will tell you.”
It continues, “When you reject someone who is honest enough to tell you they have herpes because you don’t want to take that risk, just remember you are, in fact, taking a much larger risk with all the other people out there who may not know their status or be honest.”
Indeed, second only to HIV, genital herpes carries the greatest stigma of all sexually transmitted infections. For many people living with the disease, the shame and isolation associated with it are far more debilitating than the physical symptoms.
Listen: Madison Missina and Carla GS discuss whether your ‘number’ matters. Post continues after audio.
They’re terrified to tell a potential partner about their condition. They’re worried they’ll be rejected or shamed, or judged unfairly.
Speaking to NPR, 36-year-old Adrial Dale described his genital herpes as “a death sentence to my love life.” But it’s this fear that makes people not want to tell others, and likely leads to more and more people contracting the disease unknowingly.
The more stigmatised genital herpes is, and the more judgmental we are of people who have it, the less likely it is that people will a) go to the doctor and get diagnosed, and b) warn future partners and take sensible precautions.
And what if you do contract genital herpes? What then?
Ultimately, it’s a skin condition. Symptoms don’t show up for most or even all of the year, and the only time it’s really dangerous is if you have sex with someone with HIV (symptoms of herpes can increase the chances of contracting HIV), or during pregnancy, as it can affect gestation, and you carry a risk of transmitting the virus to your baby if you have an outbreak in the final trimester. But this is rare, and ultimately preventable with medication and a C-section.
Jenelle Marie Davis, founder of the STD Project, told NPR, “People get infections all the time — colds and flu — and no one shames those people because there is no ‘you did something bad to get this.’
"As a society, we tell people how and who to have sex with, then you add a taboo infection as a result of being sexually active, and people go crazy."
Anecdotally, I know friends who live with genital herpes and it has little to no bearing on their day to day lives. One in particular told a guy she started dating, he had no problem with it, and now they've been together for several years.
There are medications which relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of passing it on to others. Many, many people have active sex lives and don't transmit the virus to anyone else.
Disclosure is crucial when it comes to herpes. When someone tells you the truth, it's likely they're managing their condition as best they can. And among the general population, you have a nearly a one-in-five chance of meeting a man with genital herpes, or a one-in-four chance of meeting a woman with it.
It's not rare, and it can be managed. By far the most harmful part of the disease is the stigma.