THE STIGMA SURROUNDING PEOPLE with sexually-transmitted diseases has never been stronger.
This is especially true when talking about herpes, though it may fall on the more innocuous side of the spectrum when it comes to the many kinds of discrimination that people face. Think about it: if you had a group of six people, of all different races, it would be an outrage if the white person said out loud: “Well thank God, I’m not black!” People often joke, though, that “it could be worse, you could have herpes!”, and others around them accept this as common discourse. What people may not realize is that, according to the CDC, one in six people actually do have herpes. Think about that for a second. Put yourself and five friends in a room, and one of those people will probably have herpes, and you might not even know it.
This brings me to my overall issue: the part where you don’t even know it, the part where one of your friends might be playing along with this joke, silently suffering in shame around something that our culture deems as modern-day leprosy, the part that’s an unfair stigma about something that is not the end of the world, but a fight that people have to fight harder — women especially. Women have to fight harder because having an STD is still associated with being a “slut,” and we all know our culture loves to slut-shame a woman for any reason possible. According to the CDC, HSV-2 infection (the strain most associated with genital herpes) is more common among women than among men, with an average of 20.3% versus 10.6% in 14- to 49-year-olds.
This gives people another reason to shame women as “slutty” when women are just physically that much more likely to be infected. Not because we’re promiscuous — who cares if they are though! — but because infection is more likely to happen through invasive penetration, and women have small lacerations in their vaginas that make them more prone to infection. As if being a woman isn’t hard enough. The women I know who do have HSV contracted it by being in a committed relationship — from a loving partner who didn’t know they had it. That’s because almost 85% of people who have herpes don’t even know they have it. When you consider the fact that the woman in the relationship is more likely to have the first outbreak since she is more susceptible and likely to show symptoms, instead of herpes being a “slut thing,” it should actually be more of a “relationship confrontation thing” that could bring up more anxieties about infidelity and trust over anything else.
But don’t let these facts make you fear this disease even more. Herpes will not prevent you from being able to have children if you are a woman. In fact, according to WebMD, even if a woman contracts herpes in the early stages of her pregnancy, the baby only has a 1% chance of being infected. Moreover, if a woman gets an outbreak as she nears labor, having a Cesarean can mitigate all risk in passing the infection on to her baby. With that said, beyond the initial outbreak, which can be painful and cause flu-like symptoms, outbreaks aren’t very common for most people — they occur once or twice a year at most. Once-daily antiretrovirals can easily prevent people from ever experiencing an outbreak beyond the initial one. In fact, some people I know who have it claim they kind of “forget” they do because it has such a minimal impact on their life.
So why is herpes considered the leprosy of our generation? Well, hopefully no one is going to make fun of HIV/AIDS — either can still be a death sentence, despite advances in treatment and life expectancy. HPV can cause cancer, which can also be a death sentence. On the other hand, many of the other sexually-transmitted infections can be cured with medication. Herpes is unique in that it’s the long-life infection that doesn’t make people feel bad for you, but seems to actually make people feel like they can do better — like when a person says they’ll only date someone who is over 5’10”, or some other arbitrary physical characteristic. It’s something the person on the receiving end of the judgment call can’t change about themselves, but it becomes their defining and, more importantly, insurmountably-negative factor.
Hollywood doesn’t make it any better either. Remember the joke from The Hangover: “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except herpes.” Almost every Judd Apatow movie makes a joke about herpes. Maybe the old adage “Whoever smelt it, dealt it” is true for Judd. In which case, I say: “It’s all good, Judd! You have a wonderful life— a lovely wife and children and a great career! NO ONE CARES if you have herpes!”
Most people I know who have herpes are so concerned with the stigma, and I wish so much that the stigma didn’t exist. I mean, if we all had to disclose the thing we are most insecure about to someone we like before we do the most vulnerable thing with that person — with the very real fear that this insecurity will be a deal breaker — must be so hard. I don’t have to worry about telling someone right before I have sex: “I have really bad anxiety and I cry every day,” and having that person say:“ Ugh, turn off,” and walk away. I mean, gosh! I’d be so angry, and this isn’t even something that affects a person daily.
It breaks my heart to know that some of my most incredible friends are scared to go out in the world and date because of this. They are smart, they have great jobs, and they have everything going for them — but they are ashamed. Yes, our bodies are temples, and we want to preserve them as best we can, but also the temples erode over time with the general wear and tear of life. If your body is as perfect and untainted as it was the day you were born, you would literally be a giant baby — a giant baby that can’t talk or walk or feed herself, or who has never been to a foreign country, or never tried hot peppers, or never fallen in love, and never had sex. I’d much rather have lived a little than not have lived at all.