Why do we continue to make jokes at the expense of those with STDs like herpes, when they’re practically as common as colds or the flu?
And then, not even two minutes in, he made a herpes joke.
“2016 is a year that will stay with us forever,” he said. “Like herpes.” Laughter followed.
As someone who has been living with genital herpes for almost two years, I cringed.
Yes, herpes is a virus that stays in one’s DNA for life; it’s also really benign. In fact, since my initial herpes outbreak in the summer of 2015, I’ve had practically no issues. Not only have I not had another outbreak, it hasn’t affected my sex life or love life in any way. So, like any other virus that stays with you (chickenpox, which is a form of herpes; mono; etc.), it tends to lay dormant and, as time goes on, is less likely to recur.
In my opinion, something like herpes is just a thing you get from living life and interacting with others. And considering two-thirds of the world’s population has HSV-1 (typically called “oral” herpes, though it can be genital, as with my case) and 1 in 6 Americans has HSV-2 (which is typically “genital” herpes), many people have some form of it. In fact, Trevor Noah himself — as well as all the people laughing — might even have it and not even know; herpes is so common it isn’t tested for in the standard STI panel.
Other sexually transmitted diseases or infections are also pretty common. Chlamydia, for instance, is the most frequently reported bacterial infection in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there are 2.86 million cases of chlamydia annually. Gonorrhea is another incredibly common bacterial infection spread by sexual acts. According to the CDC, there are about 820,000 new cases of gonorrhea each year. Then there are more serious infections, like HIV/AIDS. Yet, even HIV/AIDS is no longer considered a death sentence due to the advancements of modern medicine.
So why do we continue to make jokes at the expense of those with STDs like herpes, when they’re practically as common as colds or the flu? Why do we continue to other people with STD/Is in ways we wouldn’t for someone with, say, allergies? Sexually transmitted diseases and infections are no different than any other illness. The only reason they’re treated as such is because of puritanical beliefs about sexuality. Considering how sex-saturated our society is, the idea that one can be shamed and degraded for participating in sex and subsequently getting an STI/D from it seems hypocritical. Contracting an STI or STD is not about having poor judgement or morals. It can happen to anyone. You can get herpes from your first kiss. You can get HPV losing your virginity to a steady partner. Viruses don’t discriminate based on socially constructed ideas about those who participate in sexual acts. No one deserves to be laughed at for contracting an STI or STD.
It’s not just jokes. Even language we use to describe our STD/I status can be problematic. When we say you’re “clean” to mean you’re STI/D free, it implies that those who do live with STD/Is are “dirty.” While it’s important, of course, to have open and honest discussions about STD/Is, we must be cognizant of the language we use in these discussions.
The more society continues to shame and joke about those living with STD/Is, the more likely people who live with them will hide their status out of fear of embarrassment. And when one doesn’t disclose their STI/D status, the more likely it is that it will be spread to unknowing partners, and thus the cycle continues.
Sex education has failed American youth. I never knew I could get herpes from receiving oral sex — I wasn’t told in sex ed. I used a condom. I was on the pill. I thought I did everything “right.” But lo and behold, I still contracted an STD. This wasn’t the only time, either. I once gave a guy a (very short) blowjob and ended up contracting chlamydia in my throat. Who knew that could happen? But I went to CityMD as soon as this partner told me he tested positive for chlamydia, got the antibiotics, and never felt a thing.
April is STI Awareness Month. I think it’s an important time for folks to speak up when someone makes a joke that shames those with STD/Is, or uses stigmatizing language. It’s time to demystify living with an STD/I.