Written by Shoshana Wodinsky.
Art by Liah Paterson.
So let’s say you’re at your favorite bar downing vodka shots with some cutie you met on Tinder. You’re totally feeling their vibe, but before you can head back to their place for the night, they stop. “Wait,” they say, “there’s something you should know.”
And that’s when they tell you. Herpes. Cold sores. HSV. Whatever you want to call it, they’ve got it — along with a fuckton of emotional baggage. The virus is so stigmatized that just talking about it can feel like a big, ugly roadblock in front of people’s quests to get laid or find ~*~true love~*~.
I’m here to tell you that this stigma is bullshit. Hooking up with the herpes-positive isn’t a death sentence, and it won’t turn you into a crusty oozing mass straight out of The Walking Dead. Herpes (aka the herpes simplex virus or HSV) is just another small, shitty virus related to other small shitty viruses like chickenpox and shingles.
Hooking up with the herpes-positive isn’t a death sentence, and it won’t turn you into a crusty oozing mass straight out of The Walking Dead.
It’s actually pretty damn likely that you’re walking around with it. Last year, the World Health Organization announced that, worldwide, 417 million people have genital herpes (HSV-2). That’s 11% of the goddamn planet walking around with the virus. If we look at oral herpes (HSV-1), that number explodes into 3.7 billion people — roughly two-thirds of the world’s population.
And most of these folks don’t even know they have it — standard STD screenings don’t test for the virus unless you nag the hell out of your doctor. Hell, even the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against routine HSV testing because it’s expensive and unreliable. Without that testing, it can be nearly impossible to tell if you’re affected, since most people carrying the virus don’t usually have any symptoms. And if the virus does show symptoms, it sometimes just causes small blisters around the mouth or sex organs that kind of look like an ingrown hair.
Not only is the disease sneaky as hell, but it’s also super shareable. Unlike other STDs that are spread by fluids, HSV is spread by skin-to-skin contact when the HSV-affected sheds their tiny skin cells into some kind of opening on their partner’s skin. The shitty part about this is that even the best condom won’t cover everything and those pesky skin cells can still sneak from partner to partner, even if there isn’t an active breakout going on. This means anything: from oral, to anal, to naked spooning, can swap the virus back and forth.
So when we talk about herpes, we’re talking about a disease that’s easy to share, mostly invisible, and pretty harmless over all. What isn’t harmless is the stigma that’s lumped in with it. In fact, studies have shown that the societal stigma surrounding herpes can do more damage than the disease itself.
The societal stigma surrounding herpes can do more damage than the disease itself.
It’s tricky to pin down exactly when herpes first got its bad reputation, but some advocates say it started in the late 70’s to mid 80’s. Around this time pharmaceutical companies were developing antiviral drugs to combat HSV, but nobody was buying. Their answer to this dilemma was a series of disease-awareness campaigns that made the harmless virus seem REALLY FUCKING SCARY, actively terrifying people into buying drugs that could reduce outbreaks and transmissions. And it worked.
Since then, that stigma has turned herpes into a national punchline. For fuck’s sake almost every Judd Apatow movie, from Superbad to The Hangover, includes a joke about herpes somewhere in the script. These shitty jokes only perpetuate a stigma that shouldn’t exist, and do nothing but make the herpes-positive too embarrassed to open up.
These shitty jokes only perpetuate a stigma that shouldn’t exist, and do nothing but make the herpes-positive too embarrassed to open up.
If you’re a decent human being who wants to punch this stigma in the face, just fucking talk about it. Normalizing herpes starts when we talk about it more in our day-to-day conversations, and when we call out the assholes that use it for cheap jokes. It starts when we agree that a fucking virus doesn’t mean that someone is “dirty”, and when we stop calling people without an STD “clean”.
It also starts when we’re more open with the people we bang. Talking about STDs with sexual partners shouldn’t be relationship-ending. Good communication is sexy, and studies have shown that people who are open about their diagnoses with partners keep their partners herpes-free waaaaay longer than those that keep it bottled up. Though even if we’re all good, virtuous sexual partners and do our darn best to keep things from spreading, it’s not foolproof.
The only surefire way to avoid transmission is abstinence — steering clear of each other’s junk entirely. But let’s be real, nobody’s going to do that. If you still want to get it on, condoms can cut the risk of transmitting the virus by about 30%. There’s also loads of antiviral medications (many available over the counter!) to suppress the physical symptoms of a herpes outbreak. These keep blisters from popping up and stop skin from shedding, which can reduce the risk of spreading the virus by up to 80%.
So in short — herpes is barely noticeable, easy to manage, and stigmatized for no fucking reason. Can we please make this the year when we throw that stigma in the trash? I think we can.