Why More Women Should Tell The World They Have Herpes

This past summer, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. The strain I have is HSV-1, which typically causes cold sores. Though I used a condom with the person who gave it to me, I most likely contracted it by receiving oral sex. Upon hearing my diagnosis, I was distraught. Though,  according to the Wold Health Organization, two-thirds of the world’s population has HSV-1.

I’ve come to realize it’s the stigma of herpes rather than the virus itself that we’re afraid of. I haven’t had any problems since my initial outbreak, and disclosing my HSV+ status hasn’t negatively affected my love or sex life. But at the time of the diagnosis, I felt like it was the end of the world. I intensely Googled the virus to learn all I can about it. I learned it was a benign condition, that more than 80% of people in the United States have it and most don’t even know, that it isn’t tested for in the standard STD panel, that any future outbreaks would be rare and less intense than the initial one, that there was only a minuscule chance I’d transfer it to a sexual partner. But one thing that was missing from my research were accounts from other young people with the virus. If it’s such a common condition, why are there so few stories published about living with it?

I found secret Facebook support groups for people with the virus, which was helpful. At least I now knew for sure I wasn’t alone. I was finally able to put names and faces to the statistics.

Then I came across Ella Dawson’s essay, Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes. At last, someone was brave enough to disclose their HSV+ status to the world and proudly put their name on it. I checked out Ella’s website and read some of her other pieces about living with herpes. The Badass Women of TED: Or, My Second Herpes Outbreak definitely struck a chord with me. I cried throughout reading it. She writes:

I never felt fully comfortable identifying as a survivor—what was I survivor of? I knew the significance of claiming that identity for victims of sexual assault, but the violation of consent I experienced when I was given an STI wasn’t the same thing. I have survived things, sure—the smoke fumes of triggers catch in my lungs every time I smell my emotionally abusive ex’s cologne. But survivor lends the past a centrality of being, and my experiences don’t define me as much as they used to anymore. I would rather be a badass than a survivor. Someone capable of so much, the sum of her experiences and the only one qualified to speak about them.

I realized what I had to do as a feminist and a journalist. I wanted to stand with Ella Dawson and help fight the stigma surrounding this prevalent condition. I reached out to her and interviewed her via Skype for my first piece about herpes, Cooties: Fighting the Stigma of the STI Everyone Has, which was published in The Antithesis, a social justice paper at my school. I didn’t disclose my HSV+ status in this article – I made it strictly fact, research, and reporting based. But regardless, it made a big splash, even getting shared on the Guerrilla Feminism Facebook page. Apparently good herpes journalism is hard to come by and I did it well.

The stigma of genital herpes and other STDs is so closely connected with slut shaming, which is definitely a feminist issue. There are countless jokes about herpes, and usually women are the butt of them. Even language we use colloquially can be stigmatizing. For instance, if someone is STD-free they tend to say they’re “clean,” implying someone who has an STD is “dirty.” STDs are seen as a consequence for being promiscuous, as something one deserved for enjoying sex. But what about the women who contracted STDs from rape? What about virgins who get my very same condition, genital HSV-1, by just engaging in foreplay with a steady partner? Did they “deserve” this too?  A friendship ended with a woman I’ve known all my life, who considers herself a feminist, due to the fact she ostracized me after my diagnosis. She was afraid to even lay in a bed next to me, fully clothed.

The only way to fight this stigma is for the realities of herpes to be more openly discussed in feminist circles. Sex education in the United States is awful. So many people are ignorant to the facts and continue to spread false information, thus reinforcing the stigma. In one of the secret Facebook support groups I’m in which is for women only has over 800 members. That’s more than 800 women from all over the world with herpes, discussing it with each other on a daily basis. I encourage more women to write openly and honestly about their experience. Ella Dawson shouldn’t be the lone face of herpes. I know it’s a scary thing – to have your name linked with an STD, but that’s just because of the stigma we’re looking to end in the first place. I realize I’ll probably get hateful comments – random people from the depths of the Internet telling me I’m a slut, that I’m condoning STDs, whatever other bullshit. But it’s all just meaningless noise. My life hasn’t changed much since contracting genital HSV-1. If anything, it’s just made my feminist convictions stronger and inspired me to continue fighting the good fight.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Rafaella is a senior at The New School in NYC, majoring in journalism and minoring in gender studies. She has a passion for feminism and LGBTQIA+ issues. Follow her on Twitter: @DiscoxBloodbath

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