Herpes is one of the most common sexually-transmitted infections. It is estimated that 23% of adults in the UK have HSV-2, the virus causing genital herpes. If you’ve slept with 4 or more people, chances are one of them has herpes. Rihanna, Orlando Bloom, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, and Kim Kardashian all have herpes. I’ve used the term herpes in this article to refer to genital herpes but it’s important to note that an estimated 2 in 3 people have HSV-1, the virus causing oral herpes, which is just another strain of the genital herpes virus. If you’ve ever had a cold sore – that’s oral herpes. So herpes are clearly very common. But why does nobody talk about it? My guess is because it’s arguably the most stigmatised STI.
Herpes is lifelong. There is no cure, so if you have the virus you’ll be infected for life. But that sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. In reality, 87% of adults infected with HSV-2 are unaware that they have genital herpes at all. This is because most people with herpes are completely asymptomatic, although they can still pass the virus on to sexual partners. For people who do experience symptoms, these are usually limited to occasionally recurring sores on the genitals. These can be very painful, but they tend to go away on their own after a couple of days and can be treated with medication. They can recur for some people, but there is medication available to suppress the symptoms if needed. So, for most people, the symptoms are non-existent or pretty mild.
Herpes is highly contagious through skin-to-skin sexual contact. One of the unique (and annoying) things about herpes as an STI is that it is still contagious even if you use protection – although protection does somewhat reduce the chances of an infection. Herpes is also still contagious if you are not experiencing symptoms. Again, having no symptoms at the time of sexual contact reduces the chances of transmission, but it is still contagious. There’s pretty much no way around it – if you’re having sexual contact with someone with herpes, you must accept that there is a chance you will contract it. The other frustrating thing about genital herpes is that it is not routinely tested for at STI clinics. There is no way of testing for herpes unless you have symptoms, which is why so many people have no idea they have it. So even if you’re as safe as possible, even if you use protection and test regularly, you can still get herpes.
We need to stop contributing to the general stigma by making jokes and assumptions about people who have herpesAnonymous
This all sounds very negative but it’s important to remember that 23% of people have herpes, and the symptoms are usually non-existent or very mild. For me, the symptoms are definitely not the most difficult part of having herpes. The most difficult part is informing partners before sex. As with any STI, if you have herpes, it is so important to tell any potential sexual partners before any sexual contact, so they’re aware of the risk. This is really quite annoying when it comes to herpes because so many people have it without even knowing, but if you happen to be one of the unlucky people who are aware, you have to tell your partner.
This can be extremely difficult because so many people are misinformed about herpes due to the stigma that surrounds it. Telling people tends to involve me saying I have herpes, followed by recalling facts and statistics around its prevalence, how likely it is they would become infected, and what having herpes actually means, in an attempt to overcome the stereotypes that surround it. The vast majority of people I’ve told have responded very kindly, going away to do some research before reaching the same conclusion – that it is, in fact, very common and not that scary to have herpes. Some people’s responses can be hurtful, however. Somebody once responded “oh, so you’re riddled” and while that made me grateful that I’d found the red flag early on, it obviously hurt. If somebody ever tells you they have herpes, or any STI, always be kind and sensitive in your response.
Herpes jokes also contribute to this harmful stigma, making people believe that having herpes is embarrassing and shamefulAnonymous
The stigma around herpes is really quite weird. I’m fully aware of the irony that I’m complaining about the stigma around genital herpes, while choosing to remain anonymous when writing this, because of the stigma. But the truth is that herpes jokes are everywhere – in films (almost every film directed by Judd Apatow), books, TV, and everyday conversation – and they’re really not funny. They often spread misinformation, making it seem like herpes is horrific. For example, Jennifer Lawrence joked that she had herpes and then added “Sorry, herpes is not a joke, it’s a disease that ravages the world.” Herpes isn’t pleasant, but this is quite dramatic for a virus that causes occasional blisters. Herpes jokes also contribute to this harmful stigma, making people believe that having herpes is embarrassing and shameful. This only makes it less likely that people with herpes will have the courage to tell their sexual partners.
The moral of the story is this: herpes is pretty difficult to avoid and a huge number of people have it. We need to stop contributing to the general stigma by making jokes and assumptions about people who have herpes. Instead, we need to work on breaking down stigma by educating each other to normalise living with an STI that makes you have spotty genitals every now and then.
If you would like to learn more about genital herpes, here are some articles with more information: