My story is one that I know many people can relate to, but feels isolating nonetheless because it's about something we joke about and stigmatize: herpes. I was in my freshman year of college when I got it from somebody who didn't know that the cold sores he'd been getting on his mouth since childhood were caused by the herpes virus, and that he could pass it off to somebody as genital herpes through oral sex. I can't blame him entirely -- I don't think I was consciously aware of that either, and in any case I certainly didn't consider the possibility of getting an STI when I told him I didn't want to "have sex" that night (intercourse) but let him go down on me without a second thought.
In some ways, I'm lucky -- the type of herpes virus that I have (HSV-1) is incredibly common -- most people have it in the form of cold sores. And HSV-1 prefers the mouth rather than the genital area, which means that people with genital HSV-1 often experience very few or no outbreaks after the initial one. But herpes -- both HSV-1, and HSV-2, which is more commonly found genitally -- are tricky viruses because you can still sometimes spread them even when there's no symptoms. In fact, most people who carry the virus have symptoms so mild or non-existent that they don't even know they have it, but can still spread it to others. So for me, even though I almost never have noticeable symptoms, I still have to have The Talk about herpes with potential sex partners.
Herpes is so mild -- it's a common skin condition that doesn't cause any other health problems -- but the stigma surrounding it has been the most difficult part to deal with. It can make it more of an emotionally taxing condition than physically taxing. Though I'm constantly reminding myself that herpes is incredibly common, and can happen to anyone in a million different ways, and having it doesn't mean I did something wrong, I still periodically deal with intense feelings of shame that it happened to me and anxiety about having to tell a new potential partner about it. We are all already so insecure about our desirability as romantic and sexual partners that having this added burden can feel unbearable sometimes. But I can proudly say I've had The Talk several times in my life so far and I've never been rejected for having herpes. People just need to be more informed about it, and communicate about safer sex. And thinking about having to have The Talk with potential partners has really helped me weed out some people who might not have been good for me anyway.
I wish that sex-positive education talked more about dealing with STIs. I'm so happy that educators like YES! are shedding light on important issues like consent, pleasure, and LGBTQ+ sex. But since getting herpes, I've felt left in the dark by sex-positive education. This unfortunate situation really broke my self-esteem for a while, and I want people to reconsider perpetuating the stigma around herpes. I want people to know that in the scheme of things, herpes isn't that big a deal. I want people to know the statistics on how common it is -- and that many people have HSV-1 or HSV-2 without even knowing it. I especially want people to know that herpes usually isn't a dealbreaker in relationships, and that if someone you're interested in has herpes and makes the mature, responsible, and respectful decision to have an honest talk about safer sex, they are most likely a total catch! Finally, I want people with herpes to know that they are totally normal and totally lovable and totally cool for paying attention to their bodies and their health.