Love, Health

I thought my life had ended when the doctor told me I had herpes

Upon my diagnosis, I legitimately thought it was the end for me.

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It’s been all over Twitter that R&B singer Usher apparently faced a lawsuit for giving a woman genital herpes (HSV-2).

Though, according to Snopes, this lawsuit took place in 2012 and has since been settled to the tune of $1.1 million, for some reason, gossipy “news” outlets such as TMZ and The Radar Online are talking about it now.

And the way they’re doing so is problematic.

I was diagnosed with herpes in July of 2015. Though my herpes is also in my genital region, I have HSV-1, which is typically oral herpes that manifests in cold sores. So, I likely contracted it by receiving oral sex.

Upon my diagnosis, I legitimately thought it was the end for me. That I would never date anyone again, that I would never have sex again, etc. This turned out to be entirely untrue.

Aside from one friend who ostracized me after my diagnosis (she was highly misinformed about herpes and made me feel like I needed to be quarantined), having herpes has had little impact on my life. I have never had a second outbreak, and even after disclosing my status I’ve had successful dates and sexual encounters.

I’m currently in a year-and-a-half long relationship with someone who really doesn’t care about my HSV+ status.

And even in all the time we’ve been together, he still has not contracted it.

However, it’s the stigma surrounding herpes (which is an incredibly common and benign virus with two-thirds of the world’s population having HSV-1 and 1 in 6 Americans having HSV-2) which led me to believe all those negative things at first. And I’m seeing that stigma being further perpetuated in discussions about Usher.

Not only are the jokes in poor taste, but a lot of the information presented is factually inaccurate. This is clearly a failure of the sex education system in America.

First of all, genital herpes and cold sores are caused by the same virus (herpes simplex). You can get HSV-1 on your genitals, like in my case, and in more rare situations, you could contract HSV-2 in the oral region.

Secondly, condoms do not fully protect against herpes.

It even says so on the little inserts inside condom boxes. As herpes is spread via skin-to-skin contact and not necessarily through bodily fluids, one can still use a condom and contract herpes. Condoms do not completely cover the whole area that comes into contact during sexual intercourse.

Third of all, the standard STI panel does not test for herpes. The CDC’s reasoning behind this is that the virus, as I mentioned, is super common. For someone who is exhibiting no symptoms, a herpes test is futile, especially because they’re not 100% accurate. Blood tests for herpes look for the antibodies to the virus, not the virus itself. When I was first tested for herpes after I contracted it, the blood test came back negative. This is because I did not have the virus for long enough, at that point, to develop antibodies to it.

Yet, the swab test of my outbreak confirmed I did, in fact, have the virus.

Most people who have herpes don’t know they have it, which is how it’s able to spread. Not everyone who has herpes will have symptoms, either.

This is why sex education needs to be more comprehensive.

When I was in high school, the gist of the sex ed class I took was “use a condom, get tested frequently.”

That’s pretty much it.

No mention of the fact oral sex can cause STIs like herpes to spread, or that STIs like herpes aren’t routinely tested for. Places such as Planned Parenthood recommend using dental dams for oral sex to help keep STIs from spreading. However, unlike condoms, dental dams are not readily available at drug stores. This makes it difficult to keep them on hand.

The reactions to Usher having herpes could cause people who know they have the virus to remain silent out of fear of ostracization. And if people are made to feel embarrassed and “dirty” for having an STI, how can they be made comfortable enough to disclose their status to a new partner?

STIs are not a result of some gross moral failure.

Like the common cold, they’re part of life. Using language such as “clean” to mean STI-free implies those with STIs are “dirty.” When we continue to use this veiled language and make STI jokes, we’re holding up the puritanical belief that those with STIs are sinners who should be shamed and mocked.

And with the sex-saturated culture that we now live in, this should not at all be the case.

Rafaella Gunz

Rafaella is a graduate of The New School in NYC, where she majored in Journalism and minored in Gender Studies. Her passions include feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, combatting online harassment, ending herpes stigma, and discussing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in a more nuanced way. She lives in New York with her partner and their puppy, Lilith Leia. Visit her website: ellagunz.com

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