Most people know what herpes are. There’s the kind that gives you unsightly and painful cold sores on and around your mouth and there’s the kind that does so on and around your genitals. Herpes are extremely easily transmittable, requiring only skin to skin contact, with condoms being an ineffective form of prevention. About 1 in 6 Americans aged 14-49 have genital herpes causing them some pain and discomfort but more than anything else, embarrassment.
Perhaps the most devastating side effect of genital herpes is stigma. The stigma associated with herpes is absolutely brutal, especially considering the fact that it is non-lethal and, beyond it’s unsightliness, is harmless. It’s true, many people’s first herpes flare up can be painful or prolonged but we forget that the shame associated with herpes can cause significant emotional damage to many people who have the virus.
Sadly, herpes is incurable at this point in time. If you contract it, you have it for life. But there is something that can be done about herpes. The world at large can stop giving such an enormous fuck about it. Beyond the actual outbreaks, it’s such a non-thing, but even reading this I’m sure some of you are still completely turned off by the idea of herpes as though it were some giant mark of uncleanliness. “People with herpes are dirty sluts,” is the general consensus and in our society it is acceptable to openly mock them both in our personal lives but also, in some cases, in the media.
The shaming and the stigma surrounding herpes is one of the saddest consequences of the low level of sexual education amongst adults. It is so common, that when we speak flippantly and hurtfully about it in our social groups, the chance that someone present has herpes is quite high. Could you imagine being that person?
Herpes and HPV are so, so common. Most sexually active individuals have at least one of the two, the one’s with herpes and the strains of HPV that cause warts just happen to be the unlucky ones who have to explain their STIs to their partners (or worse, hide them) in hopes that they won’t run for the hills or shame them publicly. Imagine what effect this would have on a person’s confidence and sex life.
We need to educate ourselves on the realities of herpes and HPV and stop this culture of stigma surrounding them. We need to eradicate sexual shaming in all its forms, not just shame about orientation or how many partners one chooses to have, but the shame about the real consequences of simply having sex, because the only way to protect against herpes is abstinence. The only reason you don’t have herpes is because of dumb luck, and who knows, herpes can lie dormant and symptomless, it could be you that is giving herpes to the very people that you are shaming. Just think before you speak about herpes, are your words contributing to the worst side effects of this virus or healing them? There isn’t a cure for herpes, there is a cure for stigma.