Herpes is something of a hush-hush topic. Like most STIs it is spoken of in whispers, as if contracting an STI – or even being worried that you might’ve contracted an STI – is something to be ashamed of.
But herpes, in particular, is far more common than a lot of people realise.
Sara* is a 20 year old student studying social work, who is carrying the herpes virus. She’s not the only one. In fact, almost 80 per cent of people are.
Sara didn’t know how common it was, until she contracted the virus herself – which she calls an “absolutely horrible experience”.
She had been with her boyfriend for six months – the only boy she had ever had sex with – and then one night when they tried to be intimate, Sara was surprised because it really hurt, and it had never hurt her before.
Over the next few days, Sara says she “noticed some bumps down there”.
By the time she went to a doctor for a proper test, she says she was, “in so much pain I could hardly walk because I felt like I had been cut up, I couldn’t sit down, I could only lie on the lounge… going to the toilet was AGONY; I barely drank any water because when I went to the bathroom it hurt so much I felt like I was going to pass out, and even showering hurt because it stung having water on me.”
Sara said she was surprised, because she had always assumed that herpes was just “some little bumps down there” – but she found the initial outbreak incredibly painful.
When the doctor confirmed that she had contracted herpes, Sara cried for three days. Partly because of the pain – but also because she felt disgusted with herself.
Sara says that, “I was so scared to tell my mum because I thought she would be so disappointed with me, I was so angry at myself for getting something like this with the only person I had ever slept with and also because I was so young and felt like I had just ruined everything.”
It’s not really surprising that Sara felt this way, given how STIs are portrayed in popular culture, and even sex ed classes.
Sara also explains that, “I was thinking all of these things because the majority of what I found on the internet was SO negative, unhelpful and frankly terrifying. The number one fact that was coming up everywhere was IT’S FOR LIFE – THERE IS NO CURE.”
She also says that she found dating sites specifically designed for people with herpes – which made her think that no one without herpes would ever want her.
“[It] made me think no one would ever want me because everyone must think that people with herpes are dirty … My whole dream of living a normal life, getting married and having children relied on meeting another person with herpes online. Fantastic,” Sara says sarcastically.
Eventually, Sara worked up the courage to tell her mother – and got a reaction she wasn’t expecting.
“She was so lovely about it and then she said, ‘Don’t you know your sister has that? And Aunty Shellie? And Natalie?’ and immediately I felt so much better – because all those people were normal, everyday ladies I knew. Some were married, all have kids – [they were] people I saw all the time and they were just like everyone else.”
In Australia, herpes actually isn’t all that uncommon. In a 2006 survey, 76 per cent of people tested positive for herpes simplex virus 1 – the type of herpes that causes cold sores on lips. 12 per cent of people – that’s still one in eight – tested positive for herpes simplex virus 2, which affects the genitals.