Image Credit: Jacqueline Jing Lin
I was 22 when I found out I had herpes.
I’d been working in bar while going to college and, of course, was sleeping with one of the other bartenders. Because that’s what you do when you work in a bar and you’re 22. I remember that he wasn’t very nice and had a gargantuan chin. Like, massive. His celebrity look alike would have been that sweet, sickly, redheaded kid from that 80’s Cher movie. You know the one. My friends took to calling him “The Chin” behind his back. They didn’t really like him either, not for any real reason, except that he seemed like a bit of a dick.
Turns out they were right.
He only wanted sex and but I wanted more, which was pretty much the defining trait of every relationship I had in my life up until I turned 31. But being a young woman means that men everywhere want to sup your sexuality like a fountain, greedy and guzzling at your spirit without any thought for what they’ll leave behind them.
I wasn’t with him because I liked him, but because I wanted someone, anyone to love me. I’d go back to his apartment after beer soaked shifts and we’d have unexceptional sex. The last night we spent together I could feel his resentment. The affair was over and I’d missed the cues; I’m pretty sure he was dating one of the other bartenders at that stage and had no more use for me.
“Being a young woman means that men everywhere want to sup your sexuality like a fountain, greedy and guzzling at your spirit without any thought for what they’ll leave behind them.”
He spat on my pussy and violently fingered me until I pretended to cum. I hobbled out of his apartment and went home and cried. No, it wasn’t rape or assault, but I still felt disposable and really fucking shitty.
A few days later I got sick. Oh my god, it felt like the worst case of the flu I’d ever experienced. I was weak, ache-y, and running a fever. I stayed in bed for four days. I also felt a sharp, stinging pain where he had ripped my labia with his rough penetration. Ow ow ow.
When I went to the doctor, the kindly old lady physician told me I didn’t have the flu, but I had herpes. She acted like it wasn’t any big deal, gave me a script, and sent me on my way.
But it was a big deal. My whole world stopped. I had herpes!
Who would love me now? I felt broken and disgusting. I hated myself. I thought herpes was fucking gross. I thought everyone would think I was a whore. And if I couldn’t have sex, what did I have? I’d always felt like my sexuality was one of the only tools I had for getting what I wanted out of my life. Everything I read online was devastating – I HAD HERPES FOREVER. The stigma and silence was deafening. I was sure I was the only person I knew who actually had it.
The following year I finally moved away from that college town and started a career in a new city. But if my love life was a disaster before I had herpes, it was a full scale meltdown for the first few years after my diagnosis. I’d always been a drinker, but I partied hard, regularly ending the night crying to anyone who would listen about how much of a loveless loser I was and how I’d never find love. I stopped having sex. Completely. Was I going to tell every single person I hooked up with about my herpes? No fucking way. That conversation was too excruciating to bear, so I stopped having sex altogether. I became celibate. At 24, that was it. I thought I’d be alone forever.
I fell into a relationship with a self described feminist who said he didn’t care about my diagnosis, but would throw digs at me, like tiny, slut shaming barbs. He wouldn’t ask outright how many partners had I had – but he’d try and trick me into admitting that I’d actually had hundreds of lovers before him. He never truly respected me, either because I had herpes or just because he was a sack of shit- I’ll never know. Both probably.
“For every five people in a room, at least one person has herpes.”
After I survived that relationship (death threats, doxxing, rape and homelessness included) I had to learn to love myself all over again. And through that experience, something changed in me. Over time, something started shifting. I became so tired of the same goddam tape on repeat in my mind. It was exhausting. I stopped caring what any man thought of me. They could try and belittle me, to embarrass me, to break my spirit- but they’d never succeed. I had herpes, so what! I deserved a better life than the isolated, sexless life I was living.
They say time heals all wounds; and in the instance of herpes, this true both literally and figuratively. Over the years, herpes outbreaks can dwindle away to nothing. I honestly forget I even have herpes these days. You’ll get there too one day.
I also realized that like, practically everyone has herpes. Seriously, next time you’re on a bus, or in a bar, or at a family function — really anywhere with a small crowd — look around and do the math. For every five people in a room, at least one person has herpes. It’s outrageous that we don’t talk about it more.
So do it today. Make me this promise. STOP TELLING YOURSELF YOU’RE WORTHLESS because of fucking skin condition. You are still beautiful. You are still worthy of love. And yes- you are still goddam sexy.
And guess what? There are so many people out there than don’t even care if you have herpes. Honestly. Just pick a nice person and be honest and vulnerable with them. That’s the scary thing, unfortunately… you have to be honest and vulnerable if you want a fulfilling relationship, but — spoiler alert— you have to do that even if you don’t have herpes. If they judge you for having a goddam skin condition, dump their pathetic asses and make room for some hunk who who’s gonna eat your pussy like it’s a piece of chocolate cake.
They are out there, believe me. And, you know what? They’ve probably got herpes too!
Claire Fitzsimmons is the editor and founder of Salty. She was scared as hell to publish this piece.