I’ve Got Genital Herpes And It’s Not That Bad
A Touchpoint True Story About Stigma
A few years ago, I found out that I had genital herpes. I believed that I was cursed for life because we all know that herpes is, basically, one of the worst things that can ever happen to you. Right?
If anything, my diagnosis served as an awakening to a nationally supported mythology about what genital herpes is and who has it.
Specifically, one of every four women and one of every five men from 14–49y.o in the U.S has genital herpes. But the ultimate irony for such a prevalent virus is that up to 90% of affected people do not know they have it.
How is that even possible? There are three main reasons.
1. Despite being amongst the most common Sexually Transmitted Infections, genital herpes is not part of the general STI screening.
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention backs up this recommendation by saying “Genital herpes infections can cause intermittent symptoms that may be uncomfortable, but infection does not usually result in serious complications in healthy adults. Because the tests can be expensive and the diagnosis may have adverse psychological effects for some people, widespread testing for HSV is not currently recommended.” Isn’t the dissemination of genital herpes significant enough for the medical industry to spend resources to let oblivious carriers know of their condition, and empower them to take action? Get it together, CDC.
2. Many genital herpes carriers experience no symptoms while still technically shedding the virus.
Indeed it can lay dormant for months if not years before it causes an outbreak, if it ever wakes up. This is why it can be very challenging to determine how long we’ve carried the virus or who we got it from. Others have symptoms so mild that they often either go unnoticed or mistaken for something else. Surprised? Blame it on Google Image for only showing extreme and oozy cases.
3. There is little to no honest conversation about it.
Doctors don’t test for it. Schools don’t teach about it. Our culture jokes about it — often perpetuating the incorrect association between genital herpes carriers and promiscuity.
As a result, herpes’ worst outbreak is not a sore but a single narrative — one that fails to tell the whole story of how common, easy to catch, and medically irrelevant it is.
But mostly, it’s a narrative that prevents that 1 in 6 American affected by genital herpes to know and express that this virus isn’t as significant as they may think.
People with herpes suffer from feeling wrongfully defined by a virus, which doesn’t encourage them to discuss their health status before getting intimate, which then puts their partners at risk. This dirty little affair between herpes and stigma is not keeping anyone safe, nor it is making anyone feel good. Quite the contrary. So the question becomes, how do we end it ? The answers are simple.
Let’s talk about herpes as the skin condition we nonchalantly call cold sores when it happens on the mouth, rather than rebranding it through withering and loose terms like infection or disease when it happens on genitals.
That is not to say that genital herpes isn’t something we should be careful about. However, perpetuating the belief that genital herpes is anything to be ashamed of only sets us up for failure to slow down its spreading. Or the spread of any STI for that matter.
In a world where many of us begin our sexual explorations long before we know a lot about it, openly talking about STIs could help preventing that 1 in 2 of us to catch an STI in the first place.
Where medicine can’t do anything for us, we can do something for each other. Dropping stigma and making our partners feel comfortable to disclose they carry genital herpes is not only a kindness to them. It’s a responsibility to ourselves.