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Why is There Still Such a Stigma Around Herpes?

Even though herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), it still carries a social stigma and is mostly misunderstood. This stigma can negatively impact people’s mental health and may even cause some people to feel too embarrassed to tell a sexual partner that they have it

Even though herpes is a common sexually transmitted infection (STI), it still carries a social stigma and is mostly misunderstood. This stigma can negatively impact people’s mental health and may even cause some people to feel too embarrassed to tell a sexual partner that they have it. 

According to the CDC, more than one out of every six people between ages 14 and 49 have genital herpes. However, even though it’s extremely prevalent, these statistics do little to reduce stigma. Also, many people don’t realize that genital herpes is nearly as easy to manage as oral herpes, with only a few outbreaks that have decreasing severity over someone’s lifetime.  

What is Herpes Simplex?

“Herpes” is caused by an infection called the herpes simplex virus (HSV). The two most common of these infections are HSV are HSV-1 and HSV-2. About half of Americans ages 14-49 have HSV-1, and about 1 in 8 of the same age range have HSV-2.

Although they are in the same virus family, each has a different subtype. For example, HSV-1 is spread by kissing, shared objects, or oral sex. That means this virus can infect hands/fingers, neck, nostrils, and more. HSV-2 is usually contracted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who already has the virus.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of HSV?

HSV-1 has symptoms that include sores around the mouth and lips, also known as cold sores or fever blisters. In addition, HSV-1 can cause “genital herpes,” however, most are caused by HSV-2. Generally, someone with HSV-2 will have sores around their genitals or rectum.

Symptoms are most intense during the first outbreak and then lessen over time. The symptoms can last from 2-4 weeks before they resolve independently without medication and can last longer during the first infection.

Other HSV symptoms are itching, tingling or burning sensation, tiredness, swollen lymph nodes, and flu-like symptoms. However, many people with HSV will have no symptoms at all.

How Can I Prevent HSV From Spreading?

HSV is a highly contagious infection. To help prevent it from spreading to other people:

  • Keep shared items like drinking cups and utensils separate from other family members and wash them well after using. 
  • Don’t kiss anyone and abstain from oral, anal, and vaginal sex at the highest time of infection (when any tingling or burning is felt).
  • Wash your hands often and try not to touch your face and eyes.
  • Use condoms. 

Is Genital Herpes Bad for a Person’s Overall Health?

Regarding a person’s health, genital herpes is generally nothing to worry about. According to the National Institutes of Health, people with genital herpes never even have outbreaks, or they decrease over time. The virus can even lie dormant in your system for years. 

The only times that having genital herpes can be dangerous to your overall health is when you engage in sex with someone with HIV. Herpes can increase the likelihood of you getting HIV and during pregnancy.

A genital-herpes outbreak during the third trimester of pregnancy or delivery can be deadly for the baby if they contract it from the person giving birth (called neonatal herpes). However, this is a very rare occurrence, happening with about one per 3000 to 20,000 births. It can also be preventable with the proper medication and a C-section (www.aafp.org/afp/2002/0315/p1138.html). 

Why Is Herpes So Stigmatized?

Herpes is stigmatized because HSV-1 and HSV-2 are sexually transmitted infections (STIs). There seems to be a stigma to any STI, no matter which kind.

This stigma has been prevalent throughout many different eras. Historically, some of the names people used for sexually transmitted infections show where the stigma comes from. For example, people referred to syphilis with names like “the French fever” or “the Chinese disease.” These names labeled and shamed whole categories of people. More recently, from the 1950s onward, there’s been much stigmatization of sexually transmitted infections, especially when it comes to HIV. 

Another reason that herpes itself is so stigmatized could be because it is incurable. Even though there are effective medications to treat the outbreak and prevent shedding, which reduces the chances of passing it on to your partner, many people still get hung up on the fact that you can never fully get rid of the virus.

Who Is Directly Responsible for the Stigma?

Until the 1970s, there was no stigma associated with genital herpes at all. The stigma was actually created by a pharmaceutical company to sell their newly developed antiviral medication.

Here is some info From Project Accept:

The stigma is a relatively recent phenomenon and directly results from Burroughs Wellcome’s Zovirax pharmaceutical marketing campaign in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.

The Burroughs Wellcome advertising campaign aimed to stimulate demand for Zovirax by creating patients’ concerns about any social consequences and implications of contracting the infection. It then went on to say that the drug could reduce outbreaks and transmission.

Then, a 1982 TIME cover article said herpes was “the new scarlet letter” and viewed it as a consequence of “the new sexual revolution.” As a result, it created shame around herpes.

As a result, people are still grappling with the adverse effects of this stigma today. People who have herpes can experience anxiety and depression after diagnosis. Those feelings can be even worse for people who contracted it during a sexual assault or if their partner cheated on them.

When we reinforce this shame and stigma, nothing is being done to minimize the spreading of STIs. In fact, it is more likely they will spread the infection because people will be too ashamed to get tested or tell someone about the diagnosis for fear of rejection.

In Summary

There is no shame in having genital herpes, no matter how it was contracted. Consider this thought from Sarit Luban:

“If we accept one iteration of body shaming, how can we authentically resist it in its other forms? Consciously affirming the intrinsic value of all bodies – regardless of status – can break the cycle of STI-positive erasure, marginalization, and reticence that preserve the status quo.”

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Billie Olsen

AUTHOR: Billie Olsen

Billie Olsen (she/they) is a lifestyle writer, disability justice advocate, and cozy femme located in Kelowna, BC, Canada. Their works have appeared in Metro News, Discorder, Sophomore Magazine, the Post-Feminist Post, DINE Magazine, and NerdReader.