I found out I had herpes a year ago
People told me what an irresponsible slut I was
July 13th, 2015 was the day I contracted genital herpes.
I got it from a guy I met off Tinder that I really liked who didn’t know he had it. At the time of my first outbreak and diagnosis, I thought it was the end of the world. The guy who gave it to me blamed and ignored me, and one of my closest friends also began to treat me differently.
I’ve written about that experience more in depth before, but now I just want to reflect on my year living with this condition, as I’ve come so far from where I was this time last year.
This past year, despite herpes, I have studied abroad in Scotland, visited Miami and Vermont, graduated college, landed a job as a social media editor for a magazine, got new tattoos, made new friends and fell in love. I was able to continue living my life to the fullest, even with this virus.
So on July 13th, 2016, I woke up in a hotel room in Vermont, on vacation with my boyfriend of six months who I’m madly in love with. While he doesn’t have herpes, he’s never cared that I did from the get-go. We met on OkCupid – I in no way felt the need to restrict myself to dating sites for people with STIs, such as Positive Singles. In order to destigmatize this condition that most people have, I believe it’s important to continue on with our lives as normal, and that’s what I’ve done this past year.
When I contracted herpes, I was exploring casual dating and polyamory for the first time in my life. The partners I was seeing at the time still wanted to date me and saw me for who I am, not for the benign skin condition I had contracted. As everyone fears rejection because of herpes, I was relieved to find that such alienation wasn’t really the case. People who are educated about STIs will understand how prevalent an STD it is and how, despite the stigma and irrational fears, it actually causes very few problems.
In fact, I don’t even believe I’ve had another outbreak since my initial one last summer. And if I did, it wasn’t even noticeable – not at all like the first one, which is known to be the most intense. To be on the safe side though, I do take daily suppressive antivirals. So one more pill in the morning along with my anxiety meds is the only real change I’ve had to make.
I think the most gratifying thing, though, was the fact that by speaking out about my experiences living with herpes, I’ve been able to help others living with this condition. While, of course, I’ve gotten hate from trolls on social media telling me what an irresponsible slut I am, the messages of support and encouragement I have also received mean the world to me. Herpes is so incredibly common, with two-thirds of the population having HSV-1, the strain I have. I know I’m not special or unique for having herpes, but the fact that my honesty and openness about my experience has helped at least one person out there come to terms with this is more than I could have ever asked for.
I hope one day herpes won’t carry such a nasty stigma with it, especially since the stigma was entirely created by the pharmaceutical industry in the 1980s despite people living with the condition for centuries. One way to help break the stigma is education. We must provide younger generations with better, more accurate sex ed. Another thing that would help combat the stigma is regularly testing for herpes. Currently, the CDC does not recommend routine herpes testing, so the standard STI panel does not check for it. I believe knowledge is power. If more people were aware that they carry the virus, even if asymptomatic, they wouldn’t be so quick to make that herpes joke at the expense of someone else. If you think about it, even the colloquial language we use surrounding STIs can be stigmatizing. For instance, if someone gets a negative test result, they’ll say they’re “clean.” Terms like this imply someone with an STI is “dirty,” and thus continues to perpetuate the stigma.
All in all, my life hasn’t changed that drastically since contracting herpes last year. If anything, it’s made me more aware of the shame that exists surrounding STIs like herpes and how fighting STI stigma is actually a feminist cause, since it’s so closely linked with slut shaming and victim blaming. Sex is still seen as shameful, and thus contracting something like herpes as a result of having sex is seen as something to be embarrassed of. But HSV-1, the strain of herpes I happen to have on my genitals, is the same virus that causes cold sores, and products like Abreva are readily available over-the-counter at the drug store. So many only see herpes as something that should be stigmatized when one contracts it because of sex, as opposed to, say, kissing your aunt when you were a kid. It’s important to think about these things, though the only time this ever occurred to me was after my diagnosis.
Having herpes has really opened my eyes to the way puritanical ideologies can still creep in and affect people, even in this day and age. I look to do my part to change this. No young person should have to get a herpes diagnosis and feel disgusting or unworthy of love and compassion out of fear of what others will think. Contracting herpes is just part of existing in the world and interacting with other humans. It is not something to be ashamed of, no more than diabetes or any other health condition people live with. I’ve had herpes for a year and guess what? My life went on, virtually unaffected.