About a year ago, I had my first outbreak of genital herpes. I’d dreaded hearing the diagnosis, especially since there’s a huge stigma associated with the STD, but I refused to let myself be defined by it. As it turns out, having herpes isn’t actually that big of a deal.
It doesn’t mean I’m irresponsible. In fact, in my circle of friends, I’m probably the most careful when it comes to safe sex. When I’m interested in sleeping with a crush, we’re going to have a good long talk about STD risks, swap test results, and invest in some condoms because that’s my kind of foreplay. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that sex is a calculated risk and I just happened to fall on the wrong side of the numbers despite my paranoia.
Finding the “culprit” is a waste of time. Of course, playing the STD version of Whodunnit? could be fun if you’re into pointless stress and wracking your brain for the details of every sexual encounter you’ve ever had, but that’s not really my idea of a good time. Herpes can lie dormant for years until something triggers an outbreak and in my case, it was impossible to trace the origin of infection. My time was better spent on basically anything else.
Telling recent partners actually went way better than expected. I’ve heard stories of friends who, after contracting an STD, did the responsible thing and informed their recent partners, only to be shamed for it. I was lucky enough to have extremely understanding people in my life who were grateful for my honesty and acted like adults about the whole thing. I guess I just have good taste.
The first outbreak was the worst. My first herpes outbreak lasted about a week, during which I was in a lot of pain and had a fever and other flu-like symptoms. It sucked, but after that, I was through the worst of it. Realising the severity of my first outbreak was a one-off experience stopped me from freaking out too badly. I knew it would never be as intense as that first time.
The symptoms are pretty mild. This varies from person to person but for me, my symptoms aren’t too bad. I usually get a small outbreak around my period and otherwise, I’m fairly clear. It’s a mild inconvenience rather than a cause for stress, meaning I don’t really think about it most of the time. Miraculously, life goes on as usual.
Basically everybody has some strain of herpes, whether they know it or not. About one in eight Americans have genital herpes and 90% of those people don’t even know they’re carrying the virus. That’s an insane amount of people walking around with a condition they don’t know about. When you add the that the 50% of the population who have cold sores, which is caused by a variation of the same virus, that’s a lot of infected people. Knowing this makes me feel like much less of a leper, or at the very least like I’m a leper with a bunch of secret leper friends.
It’s effectively a skin condition. If people freaked out about cold sores as much as they did about herpes, we’d all be running around in hazmat suits. What makes herpes so awful is not the symptoms, it’s the stigma. Luckily, unlike the physical symptoms, stigma is all in the mind, so by changing the way we think and talk about herpes, we can change the experience of having it. When you begin to see it as a skin condition, it suddenly seems way less scary.
If I act like it’s not a big deal, it’s not. Having herpes isn’t something most people broadcast, but I find that the more I own it, the better people respond. I don’t start every conversation with, “Hi, I have herpes. Nice weather today!” Still, if it comes up, I treat it like any other topic. When I treat it like a normal thing that normal people talk about, it suddenly becomes—you guessed it—normal.
I’m not the only one. Because I speak so candidly about this, other people tend to feel safe speaking about their sexual health too. I was surprised how many of my friends responded with their own tales, divulging suspicions, diagnoses, and test results with the same openness. In my book, this can only be a good thing. Talking about sexual health is the path toward better sexual health!
It hasn’t killed my sex life. Before I got herpes, I was terrified of ever contracting it, for fear no one would ever want to have sex with me again. I’m very happy to report that hasn’t been the case. Of course, there’s an extra consideration at play now—I need to be more careful and I always inform new partners that I have herpes, leaving it up to them to decide if they’re comfortable with the risk of contraction. But so far I haven’t been forced into a life of seclusion and celibacy, so I’ll chalk that up as a success.
The wonders of modern technology help with managing risk. I guess scientists know that even people with herpes still have sex drives and so, to mitigate the risk of infection, I can swallow some handy little pills and get back to what I’d rather be doing—having sex instead of worrying about how contagious I might be.
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