The One Good Thing About Genital Herpes

Valentine’s Day doesn’t celebrate love anymore. Quite the opposite: it is wrecking it.
It’s a day couples pretend everything is alright, when in fact it may not. A day they buy expensive presents or a fancy night out, when what we only really need from each other is genuine care. A day dedicated to not ruining the moment, ditching conversations about sensitive information our relationship may actually depend on.

My story with genital herpes started a couple years ago. It involves a man, sex, pain and fear. The electroshock someone typically feels when learning they have genital herpes is one that can’t be forgotten. It’s a mix of fear of living with a virus that has arbitrarily decided to marry you for life, of confusion about why YOU out of all people and of shame, fearing what people will think if by misfortune they were to hear about your newly found condition. Luckily enough, that episode wasn’t my story’s finale. If anything, it was the beginning of a life changing revelation that began with a few staggering stats: 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? Well, there are three main reasons:

* Firstly, 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?

* Secondly, 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.

* And lastly – the third and arguably most heart-breaking reason – is that there is little to no honest conversation about it. Doctors don’t test for it. Schools don’t teach about it, barely talking about sex without distorting or sugarcoating the risks it truly entails. Our culture jokes about it – often perpetuating the uneducated association between genital herpes carriers and promiscuity. Even on the day we globally observe the unparalleled power of love, it is through shallow and commercial ways that we are encouraged to express our commitment to each other, rather than through meaningful acts of trustworthiness. As a result, herpes’ worst outbreak is not a sore but a single narrative – defining herpes positives when herpes positives should be the ones defining it. A narrative 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 actually says nothing about them.

You’ll wonder why on earth you should even care about this!

Well, if you are planning to join in on today’s celebration of unions and relationships around the world, there is one relationship out there that could potentially ruin yours. One that diminishes what love values, like communication and empathy. One that we – men, women, herpes positives or herpes negatives – are equally responsible to divorce:
Herpes – the virus, and the single narrative that currently frames it.

Frankly speaking, it currently puts us in a lose lose situation. Herpes positives suffer from feeling wrongfully defined by a virus, which doesn’t encourage them to discuss their health status before getting intimate, which then puts herpes negatives at risk of catching it and also experiencing the rodeo of emotions previously described. This dirty little affair between herpes and stigma is not keeping anyone safe, nor it is making anyone feel good. So the question is, how do we end it? The answer is surprisingly simple: an alliance. We all need to ally because unless everyone changes their perception of genital herpes, genital herpes’ perception won’t ever truly change.

Let’s swap silence with conversation.                                                                                              Let’s stop judging and start listening.                                                                                              Let’s supplement the single narrative with the many herpes positives are eager to share. Let’s talk about herpes as the skin condition we nonchalantly call cold sore 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. I’d recommend being careful about any virus – from genital herpes, to HIV, to rhinovirus. However, perpetuating the belief that genital herpes is anything to be ashamed of only sets us up for failure to slow down its spread. Or the spread of any STI for that matter. In a world where the majority of us starts having sex before we know a lot about it and where unlike other things in life, more sex experience doesn’t translate into more knowledge about sex, leaving judgements at the door and openly talking about STIs could help preventing 1 in 2 of us to catch an STI in the first place.

So here’s to thoughtful lovers. Where medicine can’t do much about genital herpes, you can do something about it. Dropping stigma and making your partners feel comfortable to disclose they carry genital herpes is not just a kindness to them. It’s a responsibility to yourself.


*Picture by Alex Contell

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