Do you know how this is affecting my life right now? It’s not, aside from the fact that I’m not going to get laid this weekend because I’m trying not to infect my lover.
Why am I telling you this? Because having an outbreak — my first in a while, as they typically only happen once or twice a year, if that — has made me think about what it was like when I was first diagnosed. All the needless anguish I suffered because we have decided as a culture that herpes is a Horrible Disgusting Thing. So I’m going to tell my little story about it and put it in the herpes tag with the hope that I’ll provide some comfort to others who have herpes — and make those of you who don’t think twice before you crack another herpes joke.
The first time I remember even having any thoughts about herpes was sometime in the 1990s, when I started seeing Valtrex commercials on TV. I remember in particular one shot of a woman riding a bike, a bit of imagery that seemed designed to make you think about her poor diseased crotch. And I remember thinking “Dear god, that must be so horrifying. I’m so glad I’m not one of those people.”
In early 2005 I became one of those people. My ex-husband — who, at the time, was my brand new boyfriend — had the tiny beginnings of a cold sore on his lip. It was barely noticeable, and after sharing a bottle of wine we both somehow forgot it was there. And then we had oral sex. And then, immediately afterward, I said “Oh my god, you just went down on me and you have a cold sore!”
A day or two later, a small blister appeared on my inner labia. I went to the doctor. It was herpes. I got the dreaded Valtrex prescription. My mother, who is always so supportive, told me that no man would ever want me and that my future children would be born blind. I was convinced that my sex life, which had always been so important to me and had been characterized by spontaneity and adventurousness, would now be limited to condom-covered sex with whatever poor chump was willing to expose himself to the risk of my contaminated vagina. I was heartbroken.
Fortunately, one of my friends disclosed to me that she also had herpes, had gotten it the exact same way, and that it had by no means been the end of her sex life. I cannot overstate the importance of that conversation, how it comforted me and made me realize that all the cultural messages we receive about herpes are a bunch of bullshit. If you have a cold sore on your lip you probably don’t think much about it, aside from aesthetic concerns; you avoid kissing people on the mouth or anywhere else until it goes away, and that’s it. Genital herpes is the exact same thing. I’d take a herpes outbreak over a yeast infection or UTI any day. I’m not unclean or a horrible person, I’m just someone with a relatively harmless virus — one that between 65% and 90% of the world’s population also has.
A few months ago a friend and I were observing some douchey teenage boys hitting on some teenage girls and my friend made a crack about one of them having herpes. “Hey,” I said, “Don’t make fun of herpes. I have herpes.” She was shocked, but was also receptive when I took a few minutes to educate her about it. Herpes jokes don’t really bother me personally, but I would love to see an end to them, because they make it so much harder for people who are newly diagnosed. There’s a ton of stigma attached to STIs in general, obviously, but herpes gets a particularly bad rap because you can’t get rid of it. There’s no reason for herpes to be as feared or reviled as it is, though. It’s a minor skin condition. That’s it.
I’ve had to disclose my herpes to a few new partners over the years, including the person I’m seeing now. Everyone has wanted more information, but no one has reacted badly. My current partner and I are making efforts to avoid transmission, but I think he also understands that on the off chance that he were to get it, it wouldn’t really be a big deal anyway. For most people, it’s not. If you do a Google image search for genital herpes, you will get a ton of horrifying photos back that are nothing like what I — or most people with herpes — have experienced. In fact, I just took a look at my lady business in the mirror, and nothing’s even visible; I only know I’m having an outbreak because I noticed the characteristic minor burning sensation yesterday and was subsequently able to feel the bump with my fingers.
So, that’s my herpes story. I hope it helps someone. And I hope that people who don’t have herpes — or who think they don’t — will stop making it out to be the mark of a disgusting Slutty McSlutterson. It’s just something that happens to people — a lot of people — and shouldn’t be nearly as big a deal as it is.