Four years ago, when the nurse at the Planned Parenthood clinic came into the exam room to tell me that my blood test had come back positive for the HSV-2 strain of the herpes virus, I wasn’t surprised. I barely reacted. What is there to say, really, when you receive a diagnosis — and the stigma that goes with it — that you’ll carry for the rest of your life?
I said the only thing there was to say: “Thank you.”
I left the clinic, got in my car, and drove home. I didn’t cry. I didn’t scream. In fact, I was mostly unfazed. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I’d resigned myself to the diagnosis years before I even walked into the clinic, years before I’d had my first symptom that I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t that I was cavalier or unsafe. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It’s just that I was always pretty sure I’d end up with herpes eventually. I thought, well, Doesn’t everyone have herpes?
My theory was proven essentially true this past year, when new research from the World Health Organization estimated that two-thirds of people in the world have HSV-1, the strain of the herpes virus that’s usually transmitted orally. So I’m hardly alone as a card-carrying member of Club H. But even as more and more people talk and write openly about having herpes, I still find that there’s one narrative that dominates the conversation. It’s the one in which our heroine finds out that she has contracted HSV, is devastated at first, opines about the loss of her love life, is sure that she’s unfuckable and unlovable, and eventually comes around to realizing that it isn’t actually that bad.
And that’s the experience many people have after they’re diagnosed. But it wasn’t mine. When I got home from Planned Parenthood that day and told my partner the results of the test, he said the only thing there was to say: “OK.”
Herpes just is, you know? Like getting stuck in a traffic jam or burning your dinner or the fact that Eddie Murphy inexplicably had a hit song.
Today, I’m not scared to disclose my status. I’m not worried about rejection, because anyone who would reject me based on it isn’t worth my time. I don’t regret getting herpes. I’m not sad about it, I’m not angry about it, I don’t spend time wishing that things were different.
Herpes just is, you know? Like getting stuck in a traffic jam or burning your dinner or the fact that Eddie Murphy inexplicably had a hit song. It’s a skin condition that flares up every once in awhile, like eczema, and then resettles beneath the surface.
I could forget I even had herpes if the society I live in weren’t hell-bent on reminding me. Sometimes that’s with “funny” (by which I mean extremely tired) jokes about how everything stays in Vegas (except herpes!), or references to glitter (the herpes of craft supplies!). Sometimes it’s worse.
I’ve been told that having herpes makes me “disgusting.” I’ve seen friends dumped by people they really liked after disclosing their HSV-positive status. I’ve known people who stayed in abusive relationships after their partners told them no one else would want them because they were dirty, damaged. I had a doctor who was so uninformed about a virus the CDC estimates 1 in 6 people has that she didn’t know how to treat my herpes during my pregnancy and was wholly unprepared to deal with my symptoms flaring up.
The reality is that being STI-positive is extremely marginalizing — particularly when it’s an STI we carry with us for life, and regardless of how harmless the symptoms of the infection actually are. Which is silly, because if it weren’t for the scarlet H on my forehead, herpes could just be what it feels like to me: no big deal.
When I first started having weird symptoms in my pelvic region, herpes wasn’t my first guess. If you had aching skin on your butt and vulva, or sore quadricep muscles, would it be yours? For a long time, I thought I was sick with something else. And then I thought I was making a big deal out of nothing. It’s just a little tenderness, I’d tell myself. Though, in reality, my quads were so sore that my legs would give out on me, and my skin ached so badly that I couldn’t put pants on sometimes. So while that sounds extreme — and I suppose it was — there’s a reason I didn’t rush straight to the doctor to get tested.
I thought, and my online research suggested, that herpes meant outbreaks, and outbreaks meant lesions. But that’s not what herpes looks like for me. My outbreaks just look a lot like a single ingrown hair that always appears in the same spot. They itch, but they don’t hurt. They scab over, but they don’t ooze.
So herpes wasn’t exactly on my radar. It was almost a year after I started to notice symptoms that I finally found myself staring at ceiling tiles in the Planned Parenthood clinic, while a doctor told me that my potential lesion was too scabbed over for her to do a culture, sorry, and I asked, "Well then please could you do a blood test so I at least know for sure?"
It turns out that many, or even most, of the people who have herpes aren’t aware that they do. For some, that might be because they don’t show any symptoms at all. But for others, it’s because the virus is portrayed as a single thing (ugly, painful genital lesions) and their symptoms, like mine, don’t look like that — so they go undiagnosed. That lack of information, which impacts both patients and doctors, is a big part of what causes the stigma and silence around the virus.
In the online HSV-positive community, they call the person who gave you herpes “your gifter,” as if herpes is a present, tied with string, topped with a bow. Something you unwrap with anticipation, the way a lover carefully removes each piece of your clothing. Except the gift of herpes is one that no one wants to open.
When you do find out you have herpes, you usually want to determine who your “gifter” is. For some people, the answer is clear. For me, not so much.
It could have been the guy I slept with almost exclusively for over three years, who I found out had cold sores only after his friends told me. We didn’t use condoms, but even if we had, it wouldn’t have protected me from his cold sore transferring to my vulva.
It could have been the tattoo artist I met on OkCupid and saw just a handful of times, the one covered in ink and body hair, and who wasn’t great at respecting my sexual boundaries, though he did at least always wear a condom. He stopped talking to me after I had what I thought was an allergic reaction to the latex condom and texted to ask him about it. It definitely could have been him.
It could have been one of the many people I hooked up with in a blackout, people whose names I’ll never remember, whose faces are just a blur.
Some people might read that sentence and suddenly feel free to write off my herpes as karmic retribution for getting drunk, or high, or having sex outside of an exclusive, monogamous, chaste relationship. Which is crap.
I don’t think of herpes as a punishment, or believe that I would deserve it if it were.
I think the idea that people with herpes must deserve it has persisted because it’s an infection that’s often sexually transmitted, and sex is still seen as a moral issue. Those of us who have "too much" sex (particularly if we are women) are judged to be dangerous, not worthy of respect, or asking for trouble. The “innocent” people who get herpes from their first sexual partner or from a monogamous relationship are seen as the exceptions, and the reason that the stigma around herpes should be eradicated. The slutty, nonmonogamous, sexually active harlots who get it? Well, we must have earned it.
But STIs are not a moral issue. I don’t think of herpes as a punishment, or believe that I would deserve it if it were. I know it’s not a thing that happened to me because I wasn’t careful enough, precisely because it’s a thing that happens to people who are careful too.
It’s a thing that happens to your friends, your lovers, and your family members. It’s a thing that happens to people you love, and it’s a thing that could easily happen to you too. Maybe it already has — and that’s totally OK, because having herpes isn’t the end of world (or even close to it).
I’ve been lucky. Four years ago, when I received news that could easily have been life-altering, I was lucky enough to have a partner who loved me unconditionally and made sure I knew that it didn’t have to be. And I’ve been lucky in the years since my diagnosis, because my life has only been mildly affected by the virus. Sometimes I get outbreaks, they pass after a few days, and that’s it. Most of the time, herpes isn’t even on my mind.
The narrative you often hear about coming to terms with herpes, the one I mentioned earlier, gets one big thing right: It actually can be a gift. It shows you who is worth wasting your time on, who’s worth getting to know, who possesses human decency. It’s reminded me of my own value because I can still love myself, literal warts and all. Despite what society tries to tell us, I’m more than my diagnosis, and so are you.
But the thing is that because getting herpes always felt kind of inevitable to me, I already knew that. I guess I’ve always known that. It’s never crossed my mind that herpes makes me less of a person, or less worthy of love. I just wish everyone else knew it too.