The Overblown Stigma of Genital Herpes

For many people living with this common disease, the most debilitating symptoms are shame and isolation.
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Even after his friends hype him up, Jamin Peckham still backs out sometimes. It’s not that he’s shy or insecure about his looks. Instead, what keeps this 27-year-old from approaching the cute girl across the room is a set of hypotheticals that most people don’t deal with.

“My mind runs ahead to ‘the disclosure talk’ and then all the way down to, ‘What if we have sex and what if I give it to her?’” said Peckham, an IT professional who lives in Austin, Texas.

Peckham has had genital herpes for six years now and got it from an ex-girlfriend who didn’t know she had it. He hasn’t been in a relationship with any girls since his diagnosis, though he’s been rejected by a few girls who asked to be friends after hearing about his condition. Due to this, Peckham said that he has to work harder than ever to secure a romantic relationship.

Some think of people like Peckham as immoral, assuming only people who sleep around get genital herpes. The stigma of the virus, which exists at the heart of this faulty mindset, is usually worse than the symptoms themselves, as it affects dating, social life and psychological health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of six people in the United States aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection (the herpes simplex virus often responsible for genital herpes). The overall genital herpes statistic is probably higher, the CDC stated, since many people are also contracting genital herpes through oral sex caused by HSV-1 (the kind of herpes usually responsible for cold sores). Taking that into account, genital herpes statistics are usually quoted at closer to 25 percent for women and 10 percent for men, but most of these people don’t even know they have it.

In terms of a person’s health, genital herpes is usually nothing to worry about. According to the National Institutes of Health, many people with genital herpes never even have outbreaks or their outbreaks decrease over time (one or two outbreaks a year is not uncommon). The virus can lie dormant in your system for years without coming to the surface. The initial outbreak is often the worst, occurring a few days to a couple of weeks after being infected. Symptoms may include a fever, headache, and muscle aches for a few weeks. But for the most part, outbreaks consist of painful fever blisters or sores on or near the genitals (or, in less common cases, sores appearing elsewhere) for a few days, as well as burning, itching, swelling, and irritation that may be triggered by stress or fatigue. The virus never goes away, and some take antiviral medicines to relieve or suppress outbreaks.

The only times that having genital herpes can be dangerous are when having sex with someone who has HIV (since it can increase your chances of getting HIV) and during pregnancy. A genital herpes outbreak during the third trimester of pregnancy and during delivery may be deadly for the baby if he or she contracts it from the mother (neonatal herpes, it’s called), but it’s incredibly rare (one per 3,000 to 20,000 live births) and preventable with medication and a C-section, according to an article published in American Family Physician.

Genital herpes is contracted during sexual contact, usually spread through fluids on the genitals or mouth. You can only get genital herpes from someone who already has it, can get it during just one sexual encounter, and can get it with or without a condom. Condoms merely lower your risk, according to the CDC. You can even get it if the other person doesn’t have symptoms, since the virus sheds about 10 percent of the time for asymptomatic HSV-2 infections, according to a 2011 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association.

Herpes has a unique stigma among sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS is stigmatized, but few laugh at people who have it because it’s a serious illness. HPV can lead to cancer, on occasion, and women get tested regularly for it, making it no joke to most. Chlamydia, syphilis, crabs, scabies, and gonorrhea are sometimes the target of jokes, but these STDS are typically curable, so people won’t have to endure the annoyance for too long. Genital herpes, though, isn’t curable, is thought of as a disease only the promiscuous and cheating-types get, and is a popular joke topic.

Despite the fact that herpes has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks, according to Stanford University, the widespread stigma seems to be just decades old. Herpes is the “largest epidemic no one wants to talk about,” Eric Sabo wrote in the New York Times. Both Project Accept and HSV Singles Dating blame an antiviral drug marketing campaign during the late 1970s to mid-1980s for herpes’ stigma. But it’s difficult to pin down exactly when and why our negative associations started.

Regardless of where the stigma came from, film and TV no doubt keep it alive. Leah Berkenwald pointed out in an article for Scarleteen that almost every Judd Apatow movie includes a joke about herpes. Living Sphere has a large list of films, TV shows, and books that mention genital herpes, with many of the films and TV shows poking fun at people who have it. Sometimes the jokes directly suggest people with genital herpes are whores or cheaters or they indirectly make the connection, such as the classic Hangover line, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for herpes.” The prevalence of these jokes can keep people with genital herpes from opening up.

Jennifer Lemons, a 42-year-old writer and comedian from Richmond, Virginia, isn’t offended when she hears herpes jokes, but says she used to be more sensitive before she got the facts. She’s come to peace with her genital herpes, which she was diagnosed with three years ago, after feeling shame about it. Once she realized how common it was and how you can get it after just one sexual encounter, she began sharing those facts to combat herpes jokes.

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Jon Fortenbury is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in USA Today College and Austin.com.

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