Herpes and STI Stigma is a Feminist Issue
by Rafaella Gunz
In the summer of 2015, I contracted genital herpes. The most devastating thing for me was that oldest friend ostracized me. She lives in London and I was planning to visit her that summer, but my diagnosis changed that.
She told me she was afraid she’d contract herpes from me, though our relationship was never sexual. She wanted me to use toilet seat covers and lots of hand sanitizer when I stayed at her house. She didn’t even want to sleep in the same bed with me, while we’re both fully clothed, because she’s a “cuddly sleeper” and was scared that she’d get it from me while we sleep. What’s worse? She considers herself a feminist.
What we don’t learn about herpes can hurt us.
Even though I’d used a condom and got regular STI tests, after my diagnosis, I learned that those things simply aren’t enough. Herpes isn’t even tested for in the standard STI panel, so many people who think they’re STI-free could still have herpes. Second, condoms aren’t 100 percent effective in preventing herpes transmission. Herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact, not bodily fluids, and a condom simply won’t cover all the areas of skin that come into contact during intercourse.
Feminists of this era tend to be sex-positive. We work to destigmatize casual sex and allow women to embrace their sexuality instead of hiding or suppressing it. But STI stigma hasn’t become a feminist issue — yet.
Related: 5 Safer Sex Tips for Queers
The sex education in this country is appalling. Only 24 states and Washington, D.C., mandate sexual education in schools, and only 13 states require it to be medically accurate. I knew practically nothing about herpes until my diagnosis. All I was ever told in sex ed was to wear a condom and get tested frequently, which isn’t that helpful when it comes to herpes. And what about people living with STD/Is? No one ever talks about that.
The guy I contracted herpes from tried to blame me for it, denying any responsibility. And my friend practically shunned me. These things sound an awful lot like slut-shaming and victim blaming, two things feminists are working to end. We need to talk about STI stigma in that context as well.
Herpes jokes, for instance, tend to make women the punchline:
Why shouldn’t you eat your girlfriend’s peas? Because they are herpes.
A teen girl walks into a medical clinic and tells the doctor she has “Bieber Fever.”
Doctor: Nope, it’s herpes!
There are countless more. The Hangover includes the line, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes — that shit’ll come back with ya.” Considering the movie was centered around cisgender, heterosexual men, the joke seems to imply that female sex workers might give them herpes.
We don’t tend to think about how stigmatizing these jokes can be. I didn’t even really think about all this until my diagnosis. And considering two-thirds of the world’s population has HSV-1 (“oral herpes,” like cold sores, but which can also transfer to the genitals — that’s what happened to me) and 1 in 6 Americans has HSV-2 (which more typically causes genital herpes), more people than you might be aware of could be offended by such jokes. Even the colloquial language we use can be stigmatizing. How many times has someone STD-free referred to themselves as “clean?” This implies that those living with an STD/I are “dirty.”
I realized herpes shouldn’t make me feel bad about myself.
After a herpes diagnosis, people may feel disgusting, gross and unworthy of love, affection and compassion. I sure felt that way. But having herpes for over a year, I now see nothing has really changed much. I was able to explore both casual sex and be in a serious relationship with people who knew how benign herpes is and didn’t care that I had it.
Still, many people’s experiences aren’t the same. This is how STI stigma ties into another feminist cause: body positivity. The body-positivity movement focuses mainly on weight issues, but learning to love your body and be positive about it after a herpes diagnosis is just as important. Having herpes is no reason to think negatively of yourself or your body.
For most people herpes causes few, if any, problems. The first outbreak is always the longest and the worst. But the longer you have the virus, the more antibodies you develop, making outbreaks less frequent and less intense. Many people — like myself — have been able to have happy and active sex lives with this virus. It’s hard to feel that way after diagnosis, though — that’s why STI stigma should be addressed within the body positivity community.
I’m not ashamed to have herpes, and I don’t think anyone should be made to feel that way. I know how meaningful it can be to see that there is life after herpes. Just as feminists of past eras looked to destigmatize abortions, I hope to be part of a conversation about destigmatizing STD/Is.
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