real life

This is what it is like to have herpes.

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.

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

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.”

Almost 80 percent of people have herpes.

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.

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Another relatively unknown fact about the herpes virus, is that oral sex has been linked to the spread in genital herpes – because performing oral sex on someone when you have herpes simplex virus 1, can cause genital herpes in the other person.

One of the biggest preconceptions about herpes, in Sara’s experience, is that a person is “dirty” or “gross” if they have it.

“Or that they have slept around, which is what seems to be what lots of people think about any STI,” Sara says. “Which is ridiculous because you can get herpes just from sleeping with one person, as I did.”

Sara says that it’s hard hearing people at university joking about STIs. “Like when someone has a cold sore,” she says, “Of course everyone has to point out ‘that means you have the herpes virus, ewwww’… That probably doesn’t seem like that big a deal to some people, but it’s hard when you don’t find that funny at all.”

She also told her boyfriend once she knew she had herpes, and was relieved by his support – but admits that she hasn’t told her friends.

“I just don’t feel comfortable doing that yet … I think they might over think it like I originally did and not see me the same,” Sara admits. “I hate to say it but I had probably made jokes about herpes and other STIs before I got one.”

Sara says that since the initial outbreak, having herpes actually hasn’t affected her life that much – although she is worried about having to tell any future romantic partners. It seems that most people aren’t aware of how common herpes is – and she fears that many people might react negatively.

“There needs to be more info out there about herpes being so common,” Sara says, “And the fact that just because you have the virus in your body for life doesn’t mean you constantly have genital herpes.”

“I think of it the same as a cold sore: a person who has that virus in their body might get a cold sore every now and then, maybe when they are stressed a couple of times a year, so when they have a cold sore they wouldn’t kiss everyone and spread it around.”

Herpes is not a dirty little secret.

As Sara says, the same goes for genital herpes.

“You have the virus in your body but it only makes an appearance every now and then … So while that’s happening they just don’t have sex for that week or so. It doesn’t affect your day to day life.”

There’s a lot of misinformation about herpes – and other STIs – out there. But when almost 80 per cent of people are carrying a variation of the herpes virus, and others are often unaware of how it affects people and how the virus is spread, it’s not something be should be keeping quiet about. Herpes is not a dirty little secret.

And herpes is certainly not something we should be judging other people for having.

STIs are not shameful – but judging other people for having them would be.

*Sara is not her real name

Did you know herpes was so common in Australia? Did you know cold sores could cause genital herpes? Can you, or anyone you know, shed further light on experiences of what is it like to have herpes? 

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