What Eve Ensler Gets Wrong About Herpes — And Patriarchy
Unlike herpes, sexism and racism are never truly symptom-free.
Last week, feminist activist Eve Ensler, creator of The Vagina Monologues and co-founder of the V-Day movement to end violence against women and girls, published an op-ed in The Guardian declaring an “outbreak” of misogyny and racism under “predator-in-chief” Trump. The piece comes almost a year after the release of now-notorious footage of Trump claiming his star status entitles him to “grab [women] by the pussy.” Indeed, the current political climate — from the behavior of our nation’s elected leader to Republican efforts to limit access to reproductive health care to Twitter trolls and Reddit ranters — is a reminder that misogyny has been anything but eradicated. But in her op-ed, Ensler was very specific about what type of outbreak America is experiencing: This is a herpes outbreak. Because if you want to portray something as unshakeable, unwanted, and insidious, you call it herpes.
Ensler ends with a call to speak out. As a woman living with genital herpes, I am compelled to speak out against Ensler’s remarks, which demonize my body and those of countless other women. “If something isn’t named,” she writes, “it is not seen.” So I am called to name what I see: the perpetuation of a stigma that disproportionately hurts women, queer folks, and people of color — the very populations Ensler claims to be fighting for.
It’s interesting to note that The Vagina Monologues, not just a play about vaginas but one that explicitly aims to put a spotlight on everything we’re not supposed to say about vaginas, doesn’t mention sexually transmitted diseases. Menstruation, orgasm, pubic hair, rape, masturbation, childbirth, and the scent of discharge are all broached, but the incredibly common experience of genital infection is nowhere to be found. This isn’t a unique failing on Ensler’s part, nor is it surprising. The absence of STIs in this seminal feminist work is perfectly in line with feminist discourse as a whole: We don’t exist. Except when we do. In which case, we don’t matter.
Disparaging herpes is acceptable, and it makes for a good target.
People with STIs are routinely discussed as “other.” Outside of. Apart from. Our bodies are imagined as dangerous forces to be protected from, defended against. Nobody asks what we need in order to feel safe, what we need to be protected from. We are always risky, never vulnerable. The only instruction given for how to navigate this reality? Don’t get an STI. If you do, you’re on your own. I’ve encountered this attitude everywhere from shoddy sex ed curricula to doctors’ offices to social justice Tumblr.
Being wary of contracting infections is understandable; exercising caution with one’s sexual health makes sense. However, there is a particular disdain reserved for illness associated with sexuality, a certain seriousness with which it’s discussed as if to justify that disdain. I and many others would argue this comes from a longstanding belief that illness is a consequence for wrong behavior, and little in our culture is considered as sinful as wrong sexual behavior. That’s why STIs are most stigmatized when they affect people whose sexualities are already considered transgressive — in other words, anyone who isn’t white, cis, straight, male, and able-bodied.
It’s ironic, then, that feminist, sex-positive, body-positive, and other movements for social change would endorse, explicitly or tacitly, a form of prejudice that attacks most fiercely along lines of systemic oppression. It’s counterproductive that feminists would participate in a stigma that fuels and is fueled by slut-shaming and the policing of women’s bodies. It’s frustrating that a public figure such as Ensler would latch onto such a lazy analogy for anything you think sucks in the name of ending violence against women, when in fact STI stigma only contributes to this violence.
Our culture tells us that people with STIs are unlovable; abusers know this trick well. Our culture tells us that people with STIs do not deserve full, healthy, pleasurable sex lives; patriarchy tells women the same thing about themselves. Our culture tells people with STIs to keep quiet while simultaneously punishing non-disclosure; in some more extreme cases, real people have been harassed for publicly challenging stigma, assaulted for sharing their status, or convicted for allegedly failing to disclose.
What I see: the perpetuation of a stigma that disproportionately hurts women, queer folks, and people of color — the very populations Ensler claims to be fighting for.
Given this context, advocating for female empowerment while perpetuating STI stigma is fundamentally contradictory. Given this context, it’s impossible to draw analogies with STIs based solely on their biological qualities without implicating their social significance as well. To call something herpes is to conjure all the baggage that comes along with that word, baggage that is often visible only to those who bear its weight. So, to the question “Should I compare this thing to herpes?” I will almost always answer, “no.”
But this begs the question — insult aside, is patriarchy “a recurrent virus, like herpes”?
On two accounts, Ensler is correct: Patriarchy is chronic, and just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. (Likewise, herpes is currently treatable yet incurable, and most people who carry it rarely or never exhibit symptoms.) However, these characteristics describe any number of recurrent viruses, not herpes specifically.
I suspect that Ensler chose herpes for the same reasons that other people have spun it into metaphors before. Disparaging herpes is acceptable, and it makes for a good target. Whereas some medical conditions are considered too severe or not severe enough to be exploited as literary devices, herpes falls somewhere in the middle. Often more of a nuisance than a serious threat to one’s long-term health, herpes is perhaps best defined by its undesirability. Herpes is shorthand for haha bitch, you can’t get rid of me. In our collective consciousness, the worst thing about herpes is simply that it exists against your wishes; the worst thing about having herpes is being someone who has herpes in a society that tells you that having herpes is a bad, embarrassing thing. Ensler’s comparison only makes sense if you buy into the idea that herpes is as horrible as society tells you it is. And once you tease apart what about herpes is considered so awful and why it’s so despised, the resemblance begins to unravel.
Advocating for female empowerment while perpetuating STI stigma is fundamentally contradictory.
Which brings me to the most troubling aspect of Ensler’s analogy: It actually downplays, and downright mischaracterizes, patriarchy and white supremacy. According to Ensler, these pathologies “[live] dormant in the body politic and [are] activated by toxic predatory conditions.” To be sure, these systems of oppression have never been dormant. Police brutality, rape, sexual harassment, mass incarceration, the wage gap — we are always in the midst of an outbreak. Of course, sexism, racism, and other violent -isms may ebb, flow, and change the forms of their expression. But unlike herpes, they are never truly symptom-free.
It would be more accurate to say that one can be affected by patriarchy and white supremacy without knowing it. Not because the symptoms aren’t there, but because we fail to recognize the symptoms for what they are. And just as with STI stigma, the effects of systemic sexism and racism are most visible to those who bear their weight.