Herpes: It's Time To Put the Stigma to Bed

Herpes: It’s Time To Put the Stigma to Bed

Hey mates, I’m a 22-year-old woman living in Australia. I am a student, I work, I explore, I see live music and go to art shows. I have hobbies and interests, I take photographs, I draw, I write, I live with a bunch of amazing people in a beautiful sharehouse in Sydney, and I have sex. I have a lot of sex.

But here’s my conundrum: I also have Herpes. The strain is HSV-1, which most commonly appears as cold sores, but, lucky me, the outbreaks happen in my sweet lil’ nether-regions.

I have told most of my sexual partners, but I’ve also left it out of the conversation for others. This wasn’t some vindictive plot to spread the infection to everyone in the entire world, and it wasn’t because I was ignorant about the topic – it was just something that happened sometimes for one of the following reasons:

  1. We used a condom; I hadn’t had an outbreak in months.
  2. We were both plastered.
  3. The don’t ask/don’t tell unspoken policy between dead-end flings.
  4. I was fucking scared, and never saw them again.

To me, these are just general life occurrences that happen to most sexually-active people from the age of like, 14 until you die. So for anyone sitting on their moral high-horse right now thinking, Fuck this bitch – she needs to stop being so selfish and be a decent, honest human being, please try to dismount and listen for the next few hundred words.

The last two of my reasons are the most problematic to the spread of what is a very common STI, and I would like to change that. In order for this to happen, we young people need to be informed of the facts surrounding Herpes. I’m one of those idealists who actually believes the stigma surrounding this issue can be changed with honest chit-chat amongst lovers, and after that, the media will eventually follow suit.

So how did I get Herpes in the first place?

A few years back, I was dating a dude I was madly in love with, and I just got an itch and a bit of a red ‘uss. It was only a mild inconvenience at the time, kind of like the symptoms you get with thrush. When they didn’t clear up after using thrush treatment, I decided to go to the doctor. It was only once I was in the doctor’s office that I realised it could be an STI.

I was told that if I had any red bumps, lumps, lesions or sores, then there was a strong likelihood I had Herpes. Old mate doc had a squiz and took some swabs, and the next day I was told I had tested positive to HSV-1 (Herpes-Simplex Virus). My doctor let me know that it was good I had come in when I did, because without a physical symptom to swab, it’s really hard to give a person a definitive answer on whether or not they have the virus.

My first thought after finding out was, Bloody hell, my boyfriend has given me Herpes! but after a little bit of research guided by my doctor, I found out that for the most part, the virus actually lays dormant in the body. I could have been born with it, or contracted it sharing a drink with a mate, or fucking that weird Scottish dude in Thailand, or as much as I didn’t want to admit it, I could have gotten it from my boyfriend. Various doctors have told me that it was most likely through sex, but because I have the HSV-1 strain, it’s tricky to trace.

The reason I had an outbreak when I did was mainly that I was worn out, menstruating and hadn’t really been taking care of my health: I wasn’t eating properly, exercising or resting. I started to beat myself up about it, telling myself I should have been more careful with condoms, and oral sex. But then I also found out that whilst reducing the risk of contracting/passing on Herpes, condoms actually don’t eliminate the risk entirely.

As much as this piece is about informing you of the facts surrounding Herpes, I also want to point out that I am writing from an extremely personal perspective. For the past four years, this Herpes thing has mentally affected every sexual encounter I’ve had. I have tried every which way and that to tell a person – whether I “like” them or not – about the virus, and every single time I’m trying to decide whether or not to disclose, I have this insane, debilitating fear that usually leaves me crying randomly in places I’d rather not be crying in.

I am not alone in this. The mental ramifications of getting told you have Herpes are huge, and should be treated as such. So mates, if someone is brave enough to be open with you about having Herpes, or any STI for that matter, do not reply to them with a scoff or a shove away, do not ask to “see what ‘The Herpes’ looks like in person”, and please do not tell them it’s fine, fuck them and then tell them how “disgusting” they are. Be gentle, because this person has decided to give you the respect of being open and honest about their body; don’t be a fuckwit and throw that back in their face.

In actual fact, Herpes is such a non-event in life. I’ll get an outbreak maybe one-to-three times per year. In my case, I don’t believe it is something I need to disclose. I never fuck anyone when I have active lesions (or in the week afterwards), and the risk of me passing it on when a condom is used is so slim it’s almost funny. A doctor once described the chances to me as “about the same as getting pregnant if you use a condom”, which is about 2 per cent.

That being said, I still do disclose it. This is a personal preference because I am a neurotic worrywort who lets tiny things eat me up inside, and when those tiny things impact others and also have a stigma attached, the anxiety is a thousand-fold. So I tell people, and the responses I’ve gotten back have been mixed, and for the most part pretty shitty, but when do find someone who is open to listening and forgetting about the stigma, man, does it change your perspective.

The point I’m making is not “don’t tell your partners because it doesn’t matter”, nor is it “completely forget about the health risks surrounding Herpes”. Instead, I’m just asking you to educate yourself on the topic first before buying into the stigma unnecessarily attached to Herpes. Perhaps try to tell the people who have sex with in a way that is informed, but nonchalant. Hyping yourself up about this topic and using your nervous energy to blurt it all out usually ends pretty awkwardly (trust me, I’ve done it that way too). If your partner is respectful enough to actually let you know, just listen, and try not to open your mouth until they’ve finished saying what they need to.

It’s also really important to get tested regularly. I’m such a pedantic nitwit that I usually get tested every three months, but most doctors recommend every six should do the trick. I find the more you know about your body, and the more you familiarise yourself with your doctor, the more confidence you have when it comes to informing others about having Herpes.

The joy of truly open communication channels is highly underrated. The first way to try and end a stigma is by educating yourself about the stigmatised topic, and then talking about it with others. So let’s break the mould we’ve been given through years of ignorance and miseducation; let’s start an open dialogue about Herpes and put this issue to bed.

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For anyone wanting to know more about Herpes, the author has compiled a quick-read version of facts for your convenience below:

  • There are two types of Herpes. HSV-1 is the most common, affecting around 80% percent of Aussies, and usually appearing in the form of a cold-sore around the mouth. HSV-2 is the less common strain, which affects around 12% of Aussies. Roughly, this equates to 1 in 6 Australian women, or 1 in 8 Australian men.
  • HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be contracted and can occur in both oral or genital regions. The easiest way to tell your strain’s favoured spot is by making note of where your first outbreak is (e.g. if you have a lesion on your genitals, but your doctor has diagnosed you with HSV-1, this simply means the virus will probably continue to favour your genitals over your mouth, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get a lesion on your mouth too. Herpes thrives in moist, warm areas).
  • Women have double the chance of contracting HSV-2 than men.
  • Sex and/or oral contact should be avoided at the first tingling of a lesion appearing.
  • Sex and/or oral contact should be avoided for approximately one week after lesions have disappeared (this is a fact that has changed with different doctors I have gone to; some say seven days, others four-to-five days. I try to wait a week to be safe).
  • Unless you are pregnant, or have a pre-existing immunodeficiency disorder (HIV/AIDS), the risks of Herpes having negative physical ramifications (like encephalitis) on your life is super slim.
  • Suppressive therapy rarely gets prescribed for people who have less than six outbreaks per year. This is because the active ingredient in suppressant (and treatment) drugs is acyclovir or penciclovir, which, when taken in high dosages (400mg 2x daily) can have negative side effects like nausea, depression, headaches, and vomiting (which, unlike having an outbreak for a week, actually does fuck with your day-to-day life). I reckon this should be changed, as it’s usually only the first few times you take Valtrex or Valacylovir that your body doesn’t quite adjust. My opinion is backed through an empirical study carried out in America. 
  • Under Australian law, it is not a legal requirement that you inform your sexual partner/s of having HSV-1/HSV-2. Section 79 1 (a) and (b) of the Public Health Act 2010 states that you must tell a partner of your STI before engaging in sexual activity, however, Section 81 goes on to identify what diseases are actually considered notifiable. If you skip over to this very helpful page here, you’ll actually find just about everything except HSV-1/HSV-2 on there.

Author’s Note:

The information I have provided you with has been sourced from multiple doctors I have seen over the past four years (Australia wide), the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), the ABC’s health and wellbeing website, the Australian Government’s health website, the NHS (National Health Service UK), the NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information), the IDSA (Infectious Diseases Society of America) and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control US). All of these sources basically have the same information, but some have more in-depth empirical studies, statistical data, or country-relevant facts than others. I continually research this topic, and I probably won’t ever stop because I find it interesting, and when I was first diagnosed I knew absolutely nothing about it. I even had the same misconceptions that the majority of sexually active Australians have.

Cover by Marvin Meyer