The Overblown Stigma of Herpes

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I was recently diagnosed with Type 1 of the Herpes simplex virus (HSV). I didn’t understand how this had happened to me. My own ignorance led me to believe herpes only happened to people who were sexually promiscuous and unsafe. I can’t be the only one who remembers laughing at the line in The Hangover that says ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… except herpes. That shit’ll stay with you.’ But that would never happen to me, right?

I always did everything that society has arbitrarily deemed as ‘correct’ when it came to sex. I waited until I was ready and lost my virginity at 18, I never slept with anyone on the first date, I always used a condom, and the only time I didn’t use a condom was when I was in a serious monogamous relationship where we both got STD checks before having unprotected sex. But there I was, with an icepack on my vagina and popping Neurofen like candy, suffering through my first painful outbreak of herpes. I felt ashamed, dirty, alone, and totally unlovable. Who would want to date or have sex with Herpes Girl?

There are two main types of HSV. Type 1 (which I have), is the cause of cold sores. This occurs most commonly on the mouth area, but can also appear on other parts of the body such as genitals, which is the case for me. Type 2 is commonly known as Genital Herpes, but can also appear on other parts of the body. HSV permanently lives in your body’s nervous system. It can lay dormant at the base of your spine for weeks, months, and even years between outbreaks. Some people may only suffer the initial outbreak then nothing for the rest of their life, where some may suffer multiple outbreaks each year. Stress, tiredness, a weak immune system, and other random factors can trigger an outbreak, where the virus then travels along the nerve path towards the skin causing blisters and sores that can last anywhere between 5–20 days.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 80% of the population carries HSV. Shocked? So was I. Research indicates that the majority of HSV sufferers do not express any symptoms and are totally unaware they have the virus. This results in unknown transmission between people, causing such a high infection rate. Additionally, the lack of information surrounding the virus leads to an overblown stigma.

Because this virus is commonly associated with sex and genitals, there are numerous negative connotations attached to it. For many, the idea of herpes has become synonymous with being a ‘slut’ or ‘dirty’ or a ‘player’. But would you ever think that someone with a cold sore is a ‘slut’? No. Then why is it that the location of a symptom of the exact same virus causes such a different reaction? Why is that because the virus appears on a person’s genitals they are somewhat ostracized from the sex and dating world and become the butt of many inappropriate and derogatory jokes? Why is a virus that approximately 80% of the population has never talked about and completely stigmatised?

In its most basic form HSV is simply a skin condition that can flare up throughout a person’s life. You can literally do everything possible to avoid infection and still catch the virus. I have come to realise that having herpes is not a death sentence. It is merely a skin condition that can be easily managed with lifestyle choices, natural supplements, and (if needed) medication. I found conducting my own research and learning more about HSV helped me wrap my head around the virus and come to terms with my diagnosis. I learnt how common it is and how it can have such a minimal impact on a person’s life and, most importantly, how contracting the virus can sometimes be absolute dumb fucking luck.

Yes, having herpes fricken’ sucks and I have had to change my approach to dating, sex, and general health to keep both myself and partners safe and happy. But it has almost no impact on my day-to-day life. I still go out with friends, have fun, date cute guys, and have fantastic sex. I am still me. And I am not my virus.

Elle Summers

Elle Summers

Elle is originally from Oxford, England but is now happy to call Australia home. Just like another famous Elle, Elle Summers isn’t afraid to wear head to toe pink, speak her mind or point out crimes against fashion. She adores running, coffee and pretty boys.

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