Herpes. The word itself conjures up a mental image of someone covered in sores, perhaps as a result of their own promiscuity or carelessness. But the real facts are different that our perceptions… in fact, over 50 million Americans -- and more than 536 million people throughout the world -- have the genital herpes virus (HSV-2) in some form, whether it is active or inactive. The “cold sore virus,” HSV-1, is even more rampant; 62% of Americans are infected with this form of herpes by their teenage years, 85% of all Americans will have contracted some form of the virus by the time they reach their 60s.
Although cold sores (HSV-1) also have something of a negative reputation attached to them, the stigma of genital herpes is even worse. Only a few short decades ago, it was known simply as “VD,” and was considered the most shameful sexually transmitted disease that one could contract, since it was incurable and outbreaks would continue during the rest of one’s lifetime. However, despite the shame and embarrassment that has been associated with genital herpes in the past, HSV-2 is not at all a rare infection. According to the website JustHerpes.com, HSV-2 is actually the most common sexually transmitted viral infection in the world. 85% of all those who have or carry the virus do not even know they are afflicted, and there is even between a 4% and 10% chance of transmitting the herpes virus to a partner even when the tell-tale herpes sores are not present. Using condoms might be somewhat effective in preventing HSV-2 from spreading, depending the location of the outbreak, but not all affected areas can be effectively covered; skin to skin contact is all that is necessary in order to spread genital herpes from one partner to the next. Many infection sites are not directly on the genital or anal areas, but instead, are nearby bodily areas that come into contact when partners have sexual intercourse. This makes HSV-2 incredibly easy to spread between partners.
If genital herpes is so common, and so easy to contract, why is there such a stigma about it? Why do we associate herpes with careless sexual behavior, particularly when many people who have HSV-2 are monogamous or practice safer sex? The answer is probably because the facts about HSV-2 are largely unknown by the general public. The shame and fear about this STI will often keep our conversation on “mute,” so the fear is rooted in a simple lack of information. The best way to de-stigmatize such a common STI is to learn about it and to educate others as well.
People who experience herpes outbreaks must educate themselves, often in difficult ways, in order to get proper treatment. Fortunately, education is available to those who seek it. Many people who have herpes even refer to their STI as “a gift.” One feminist writer Rafella Gunz explains that contracting the virus enabled her to become “a stronger and more self-assured person” after the loss of a close friend who ostracized her upon learning of her STI. Fed up with body shaming and victim blaming, Gunz was forced to take a hard look her newfound health issues, and from those experiences, realized that “Having herpes made me realize what type of people are worth having in my life.”
The truth is that oral and genital herpes do not discriminate – both conditions affect people from all walks of life, all ages, and all ethnicities. Those who have herpes are perfectly capable of having loving relationships and healthy sex lives, with either afflicted or non-afflicted partners. Single people with herpes can meet, date, and go on to have fulfilling relationships – just like anyone else. There are even dating websites and apps that are dedicated solely to helping single people with herpes, both HSV-1 as well as HSV-2, find friends, dates, and even more serious relationships. One of the most popular dating apps is known as MPWH, and it is designed specifically to be a safe and stigma-free place for singles with herpes to meet and find friendship or more, all over the world. Regardless of race, sexuality, religion, or gender, MPWH is committed to showing the world that these singles are normal people, real folks who deserve to be in great relationships. By de-stigmatizing the herpes, this dating app empowering the singles that use it, helping them feel connected to each other and to the world.
Although society still has a long way to go before herpes is a completely free of its stigma, everybody has a part to play in turning the tide. Technology is one of our greatest weapons against misconceptions, which can help people learn and form healthy relationships. Everyone can benefit from safer sex practices, including STI testing. Those who do not have herpes can help by educating themselves as much as possible, by sharing what we know with others, and above all, by being supportive and respectful to those who need our acceptance.