I’ve lived in New York my entire life; and while I know well the streets of Manhattan; if you drop me in the Wall Street area, I’m likely to ask a tourist for directions. Downtown Manhattan has no logic; there are no numbers, just street and avenue names, and unlike the rest of Manhattan, that’s a grid format, downtown is a series of awkwardly shaped triangles and irregular squares.
After wandering for 10 minutes, I finally arrived at the right place. Once in the room, their banter was a mental shoulder massage, that calmed my nerves for the recording. MandIi noticed my notes and said; “Bitch, you got notes!”. Yes!– I came prepared with 8 pages of notes, armed and ready to dismantle the stigma that is herpes; I was ready to lay some facts on the world. That’s when she told me that she didn’t want to focus on the data of herpes, but more on how I lived my life and dated casually, while being herpes positive… There went all of my notes!
Overall, I got great feedback and my words, and hearing my story, it helped a lot of people feel better about their status. So, even though I’ve discussed herpes on many posts during the life in my blog; I want to take this post to dive into breaking it down further. (Be Prepared… It’s a long one)
WHAT IS HERPES, REALLY?
First of all, herpes is NOT a skin condition. I know that many of us positives like to label it as such, to make it sound less scary to a potential partner, but that’s not the reality. A huge part in breaking the stigma is being honest; and if we’re being 100% honest; herpes is a viral infection of the nervous system, that is transmitted via skin to skin contact. There are two most common type of herpes is HSV1 (most often in the form of cold sores, with a rise in genital diagnoses), the next is HSV2 (most often genital herpes).
THE MAIN TYPES OF HERPES (HSV1 & HSV2)
First of all, it’s important to note that; the type of herpes is NOT exclusive to the location. A person can have HSV1 on any area of the body: face, cheeks, lips, and the genital region (anything below the belt). HSV2, although most commonly in the genital region, can in rare cases be present on the face, cheeks, or lips. It all rally depends on the individual’s immune system and where the virus was introduced to them.
So, let’s break down oral herpes. We’ve all seen young kids and adults with cold sores or fever blisters, well those were/are herpes. Most children acquire the virus from a relative. If you ever got a kiss on the cheek, or if your parents ever kissed you as a child; if they had the herpes virus in their system (aka a history of cold sores), they may or may not have exposed you to the virus. It’s interesting to consider that an innocent kiss, a human act of affection can forever impact a person’s life. But none the less, we are humans, we kiss, and sometimes when we kiss, we transmit herpes.
Genital herpes, on the other hand is solely, sexually transmitted. Before I go and break this one down, I want to take a moment to give a little quasi-history lesson. Herpes (in various forms) has been around since the beginning of time; but let’s jump to why there is a stigma with genital herpes in the first place. The reason is… SEX! For decades, a genital herpes diagnosis indicated that you were either, having sex before marriage or cheating on your partner. Unfortunately, as casual sex started to become more prevalent during the sexual revolution, the stigma on what it meant to have herpes still remained and began to multiply. For those determined to police the sexually free; degradation and fear tactics became the norm. Fast forward to today, and you have a stigma with enough weight to pound a Buick into a box the size of my palm.
Our bodies are covered head to toe with nerves. These nerves are responsible sending notes to our brain to be processed. If a person hits us, we feel it and our brain processes it as either pleasure or pain. So, regardless of where you stand on religion, politics, or sexuality; that is a fact that you can’t deny. The desire to feel pleasure, give pleasure, and receive pleasure; is, at it’s very core- human. As humans, we feel, we cry, we kiss, and we have sex. All of these biological actions are what makes us human, and sometimes, when we are being human, we make choices; and those choices may result in us acquiring herpes. Sure, if given the choice no person would CHOOSE herpes; but once we have it, we shouldn’t feel ashamed about it; because we got it being human. You wouldn’t feel ashamed if you got a cold right? So, I look at it the same way.
- When you ask to be tested for everything, that test, most often does not include herpes.
HSV (1 or 2) are not included on most STD tests; which means, a significant percent of people with the herpes virus have no idea. This same percentage of people are able to transmit the virus, even though they have no symptoms. It should go without saying (but I will say it anyway). The virus can be transmitted with no outbreak present, this is called viral shedding (when the virus is present on the skin, but with no symptoms). Condom usage, a healthy diet, and incorporating antivirals minimizes the risk of transmission by a great degree, but there is no 100% guarantee.
- You don’t have herpes, because you’ve never had an outbreak. (Outbreak = positive, No outbreak = negative… WRONG!!!)
Herpes does not always manifest itself in the way we assume it would. If you had a sex-ed class, you probably, saw images of blisters. Even though this is the most common manifestation of the virus; depending on the person’s immune system their initial outbreak can appear in a variety of ways. I’ve heard stories of it looking like a scratch, like raised skin from an insect bite, a small rash, and even a single bump. There are also those that never have an outbreak, but they may get a cold or have flu-like symptom; (9 times out of 10, you wouldn’t attribute a case of the sniffles to herpes) so, you wouldn’t go and get tested. But that may be an indicator that your body is taking a hit.
- Cold sores are not herpes, so I don’t have to disclose.
People with cold sores or fever blisters (or any other fancy name) you choose to call your reactions; just know that they are, in fact, HERPES. Many people will say, “well, it’s not the same”, but if you look at HSV1 & HSV2 from a medical standpoint: they are both life-long viral infections, and they both can be transmitted, during shedding (no outbreak) and/or an outbreak. This is a horrible example; but If I had to break down the DNA of HSV1 vs HSV2. Look at your hand (all 5 fingers & palm) as HSV1, then consider your hand and add in the wrist, that’s HSV2. I won’t sit here and say that, if you have a history of cold sores, you should tell every potential partner. Honestly, the decision to disclose (with oral or genital herpes) is a personal decision; especially since the CDC doesn’t require testing and many doctors don’t advocate disclosing. But consider this; if you don’t mention that you get cold sores to your partner, and you perform oral sex on them and by accident, you transmit the virus to their genitals; consider what does that mean for their sexual future. Hence why people advocate for disclosing.
- THE STIGMA OF HERPES
The most difficult part of this virus is, in fact, the stigma. People assume we are walking blisters; in pain everyday all day, and that we are always living with outbreaks. They assume that they will know what a person with herpes looks like and they assume that a person with herpes must’ve had an entire host of partners, and that’s how they got their virus. When the reality is: most people never have symptoms; and overtime (as your body adjusts to the virus) those that do have actual outbreaks; the outbreaks, become less frequent less painful. And the biggest myth of them all is the whore-herpes-false narrative. I know plenty of people that contracted this virus with their first partner, from cheating spouses, and casual sex. There are plenty of people with hundreds of partners and don’t have herpes and there are people with only one partner that has the virus. You won’t know until you ask and get tested.
- FACT: THE FIRST YEAR IS POSSIBLY THE WORST
Studies indicate that you are most contagious during the first year of exposure to the virus (if you have an initial outbreak). A newly diagnosed individual may, after their first outbreak, experience recurrences, and may also be shedding the virus as the body has not fully begun to build HSV antibodies. On the opposite end a person may acquire the virus and never have symptoms, they too, during this period are most contagions due to viral shedding.
- SO MANY UNKNOWNS
Because we are human, above all things, we need control and answers. We need to know that 1+1=2; because the idea of the unknown is scary; then, herpes happens. We’re taught that if we are careful and have ‘safe-sex’ we will be alright; then herpes comes along and throws that idea out the fucking window. The reality is that, herpes doesn’t care who you are, what you are or how you identify. It doesn’t care about your race, your income, or your profession. It doesn’t care if you go to church or if you’re having sex in back alleys. Herpes doesn’t think, it just does what it wants. And at the end of the day, it wants to travel and replicate and it, unfortunately, uses us humans as the means for that connection from point A to point B.
STARTING OVER AFTER HERPES
So, your results come back, positive for herpes, now what? If you go to a GYN or regular doctor, you’ll find pamphlets and support groups for alcoholism, drug abuse, cancer, and HIV; but you’ll rearely find any for herpes. In school (again, assuming you received sex-ed), all they told you about herpes, at best, were ways to avoid getting it and that it was incurable. Everything is before; they never educate you on the after. Often times, when you’re told that you’re HSV positive, the doctor writes you a prescription for antivirals and sends you on your way. It’s a sad reality that there is little to no support (from the medical community) in combination with the stigma.
The stigma and shame of sexuality, has told us that being diagnosed with herpes, is our penance for being loose, promiscuous, or too sexual; and because of that, we now have to live in silence. The stigma tells us that we are dirty and unworthy of finding true love; and if you do happen to meet a person willing to accept you, you had better shut your mouth and be happy. The stigma tells us that it’s our fault and that we now have to walk around with a scarlet “H” burning a hole in our hearts. The stigma, that fucking stigma needs to take multiple seats.
We are not dirty! We deserve love and respect! And, we deserve to be happy!
If you are struggling with your diagnosis, there are support groups on Facebook and Reddit. There are advocates working to dismantle the stigma of herpes and spread the truth. It helps to have friends or family you can talk to about what you’re going through; you shouldn’t have to do this alone.
If you are a human being, that has sex (whether it’s with one partner for 500) herpes is inevitable. 9 times out of 10 you either know someone with the virus, already had sex with someone with the virus, or will have sex with someone with the virus in the future. That’s just the reality of the virus.
How you choose to live your life, whether negative or positive is totally up to you. All I hope is that, after you’ve read this post is the following:
1- If you’re already living with herpes, you know that you don’t have to go through it alone. There are various platforms on the internet that you can seek out and join to have a piece of mind. Confide in family and friends and never be afraid to live your truth. I know the fear of being “outed” can be terrifying. But there reality is, once it’s out there- no one can tell your story.
2-If you’re herpes negative, and want to remain that way, instead of assuming your partner is STD(I) negative, you both go and get tested together. It’s better to know than to assume.
3-If you’re herpes negative and you encounter a person that’s herpes positive; understand the courage that it took for them to be honest, and think back to this post. There is nothing wrong with not wanting to pursue a person with herpes, but remember that they are still HUMAN. Thank them for telling you and respectfully decline. DO NOT shame them or call them names, as they are already dealing with enough.
If you feel like I’ve missed something, or you have any questions; my email is up and running, so don’t hesitate to reach out to me.