Can Talking About Herpes Make It Less Shameful?

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Photo: Corbis

In an essay published in the latest issue of Women’s Health — “Why I Love Telling People I Have Genital Herpes” — Ella Dawson, 22, writes about her love life after contracting the STD in college. When Women’s Health first approached her, she agreed to write with the hope that the essay would counter the typical herpes narrative: Instead of following the “blandly inspirational” formula of “I got diagnosed. It sucked. I learned to love again. Now everything’s great,” the essay opens with her having sex on a softball field with a cute bro in November. “We were freezing,” she wrote, “but it was some of the best sex of my life. In fact, the same could be said for most of the sex I’ve had since I was diagnosed with genital herpes two years ago.”

According to the CDC, one in six Americans has genital herpes, but around 80 percent of people infected don’t know they have it. Unlike chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, herpes isn’t curable. While HIV/AIDS carries a much bigger stigma, joking about herpes isn’t widely considered to be offensive or off limits. The virus figures into an oft-cited joke by Demetri Martin, appears in almost every Judd Apatow movie, and shamed the cast of Jersey Shore when the creator described handing out Valtrex, a herpes treatment, “like M&Ms.”

Herpes has become something of a go-to STD when it comes to comedy; even Dawson has encountered the jokes. When a guy offered her a beer at a party with a wink and the line, “Don’t worry, I don’t have herpes or anything,” she faced a choice. “I could laugh his comment off and pretend it didn’t hurt, but that would mean laughing at myself,” she wrote, or she could disclose her diagnosis. She told him, and has become increasingly open about having herpes.

In her essay, Dawson notes that herpes is “assumed to be a death sentence for your love life,” and while she’s found that to be untrue, the stigma associated with the disease was initially very difficult for her to deal with. “Rebuilding my sense of self was harder than getting over the symptoms of my first outbreak,” she wrote. At the Atlantic, Jon Fortenbury sums up common reactions to a diagnosis, which include “insecurity, discouragement, rejection, tears, anger, counseling, suicidal tendencies, humiliation, shame, and isolation,” along with a rather serious stigma caused by a virus “that usually doesn’t show up most or even all of the year and can be contracted after having protected sex one time.”

But the stigma is pervasive and devastating. For those who have it, there are online support groups, a herpes hotline, and dating sites devoted to singles with herpes. On a section of Tumblr users call “herpblr,” young adults trade advice on when to have the disclosure talk, support those who’ve been newly diagnosed, and share medical recommendations. 

Dawson blogs regularly, too, and has become something of a spokesperson for the herpes-positive community. She’s found speaking out to be empowering. “I had seen in the flesh what a simple 'I have herpes' could do when said fearlessly, without shame,” she wrote in Women’s Health. “Because when a real person — a woman you know and respect — casually mentions having herpes, it stops being a punchline and starts being someone's reality.”