A few years ago, I found my first herpes support group on Facebook, and on the façade, it seemed very supportive. Messages of “Keep your head up!” Be strong, you’ll find someone!” and “It wasn’t meant to be.” seemed to flood the daily feed. Even though I knew I wasn’t the only person living with herpes, it was great to finally see and hear other people’s stories. The overall morale of the chats was positive and uplifting, which for a newly diagnosed individual can be essential. However, every so often, I would come across a post asking for advice and support.
I feel terrible, and I need your advice. Last week, I was drinking, partying, smoking (whatever) with my friend. Things got out of control, we had sex, and I forgot to tell them about my herpes status. I feel terrible, and I want to tell them, I just don’t know how to.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that once the comments have been disabled, it was safe to assume that the poster was virtually attacked. Similar posts often bring out, what I like to call, The Bully-Brigade. The Bully-Brigade is the barrage of people that come together to virtually bully anyone whose actions and views don’t align with theirs. With comments like, “You’re a terrible person.” “How could you forget…” and “People like you should be locked up!” — The Bully-Brigade has struck again.
The comments and attacks vary, but the one that sticks out the most is the one of blame. It’s the person that says, “You know, many of us wouldn’t be here if our partner had told us. If my partner had told me that they had herpes, I never have had sex with them. You should’ve given them a choice.”
This one always bugs me, because they so conveniently forget that they, in fact, did have a choice. To have consensual sex, without knowing your partner’s sexual health status, was a choice. The power to control the sanctity of my body is my responsibility, and the same for your body. Do you not eat when you’re hungry, drink when you’re thirsty, or sleep when you’re tired? So, why when it comes to sex, is it only the other person’s responsibility to protect you? I don’t say this to point blame, I say this to take accountability.
Think of your body as a new car you just bought. You wouldn’t give the keys for your new car to a person whose driving record you didn’t know and whose license you haven’t seen, would you? No! You wouldn’t! But if you did, and they crashed it, was it not your choice to hand your keys over to them, in the first place? We don’t take that risk with material things, but we assume that risk with our bodies every day. From the moment I laid eyes on my partner, once I know I want to have sex with him, the responsibility to ensure my sexual health is mine, and mine alone. It was my responsibility to make sure that he posed no threat to me, and the choice I made to not verify his status was, in fact, A CHOICE.
Over the years, I learned to stop arguing with The Bully-Brigade; because they had already made up their mind that their positive diagnosis was someone else’s fault. What I try to do now is pose the question, what if…
You say — “If they had told me they had herpes…” I pose the question — “What if you had asked…?”
What if they told you they were clean, because the test they took didn’t include herpes? Therefore, they had no way of knowing they had the virus.
What if they had the test that included herpes, but because they recently acquired the virus, the antibody test came back negative? (It took 9 months for my antibodies test to detect herpes).
What if you had used condoms? (I used condoms when herpes was transmitted to me).
What if they told you they had a history of cold sores? Marketing doesn’t make it clear that cold sores and herpes are the same virus. Many people don’t think that their cold sores are herpes or that they can impact their partner’s genital region. What if this information was made clear to the masses?
What if doctors did a better job of educating patients before, during, and after their diagnosis? What if they pointed patients to support groups after their diagnosis, instead of giving them a prescription and sending them on their way?
What if sex education was clear and transparent, and inclusive of all sexual behaviors, sexualities, and sexual health? What if consent and boundaries were mandated? What if the stigma was never able to exist because people were educated on the truth of all sexually transmissible and non-sexually transmissible viruses?
What if testing were made easier for all to access? What if when I asked to be tested for everything, I was tested for EVERYTHING?
What if we stopped shaming sex, sexuality, and people with STD/STIs?
What if you’re herpes positive, you disclose to your partner, but you don’t ask to see their results in return? (Is that not, once again, handing someone the keys to your car without checking their license, all-over again?)
What if asking about a person’s sexual health was as easy as saying hi? What if asking to see a person’s test results (and getting them), was as easy and pleasurable as having sex?
What if they never assaulted me?
What if the dad, the aunt, the uncle didn’t kiss the toddler, and pass them the herpes virus?
What if the mother didn’t kiss her child and pass them the herpes virus?
What if you had waited another 3-9 months to get re-tested before having sex?
What if you had waited to go and get tested together?
What if you had asked your partner their sexual health status?
While the what-ifs are endless, none of them can guarantee that you still wouldn’t have ended up with herpes virus. With all the precautions that you could’ve taken in your adolescent or adult life, you still could’ve acquired the virus before ever taking your first steps. At the end of the day, we’re all here. So, instead of focusing on what if, focus on the future. A lot of why we feel what we feel is stigma. So, instead of trying to change others, maybe we can change our perception. And with that, we can change the stigma.