Social stigma and jokes help to create misinformation about herpes
People living with HSV can and do still live enjoyable, healthy sex lives.
by Vanessa Maki
Editor’s Note: This Sexual Health and Awareness month, we will be exploring related issues at BYP, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics. What does sexual health look like outside of cishetero norms? Where does the #MeToo movement go from here? What can we do to better support survivors, including survivors of childhood sexual violence?
Discussions about sexual health should always cover Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and explore such things without inserting harmful ideas. Unfortunately, most people aren’t in a place where they can say the name of one of the most common STIs without laughter, disgust, or both—herpes. The fact of the matter is that herpes is almost never an easy thing to discuss with people because of widely-accepted harmful ideas about the infection.
The stigma society has placed on Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), along with how it’s still widely-used for comedic purposes in entertainment, largely contributes to the lack of education around HSV.
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There are two types of herpes. HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1) is oral herpes and is mostly transmitted and located orally. A popular name for this type is “cold sores” or “fever blisters”. HSV-2 (herpes simplex virus type 2) is genital herpes and is almost exclusive to the genital or anal area. Both have the capability to be transmitted to either area. As stated by the World Health Organization, 67% of people under the age of 50 have HSV-1 and 11% of people between the ages of 15 and 49 have HSV-2, worldwide.
An individual could very easily have either or both types and not even be aware of it if they don’t experience symptoms, signs, or outbreaks. Or they could be experiencing symptoms, and simply not realize it.
Some common signs/symptoms for HSV-1 + 2 are:
- blistering sores
- swollen lymph nodes
Symptoms and signs occur differently with penis owners and vagina owners. More information about symptoms can be found here.
While the stigma for herpes may not be as heavy as something like HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses), it’s just as pervasive and it is still damaging to spread misinformation and ridicule those with a positive diagnosis. Receiving a positive diagnosis of HSV can be traumatic and can be especially difficult to individuals with mental health issues, especially because of social stigma and common misconceptions.
People living with HSV can and do still live enjoyable, healthy sex lives. Part of staying vigilant about their STI means being actively aware of transmission rates. Penis owners are more likely to transmit HSV-2 to vagina owners. Meanwhile, sexual interactions that involve two vagina owners or penis owners will differ in terms of transmission rates. Unfortunately there’s no research that’s dedicated to every type of sexual relationship, and this is a testament to just how much queer relationships are left out of sexual health discussions.
In regards to both HSV types, one should avoid any direct sexual contact during an outbreak or if one is beginning to form. If an individual’s sexual partners have the same HSV type, they run less of a risk of spreading it to other places. Though it’s still not recommended and this is why understanding and honest discussion is never a bad thing when pertaining to sexual health. And having understanding sexual partners and strong communication will make these discussions easier.
While no cure currently exists for HSV types 1 and 2, there are medications, such as Valacyclovir or Acyclovir, to help stop outbreaks and suppress them. Home remedies such as warm baths can help alleviate pain or discomfort during outbreaks. Still, it’s more recommended to take medication before an outbreak occurs, especially with HSV-2. This is especially since genital outbreaks, more specifically, can be quite painful and uncomfortable to endure.
Using safe sexual practices can help prevent transmitting or contracting either types of HSV, such as condoms, dental dams or other forms of safe sex practices. While that doesn’t ensure the elimination of transmission or contraction, it lowers the chances, especially if someone is not currently experiencing an outbreak. Most importantly, remember to get tested regularly and encourage any recent sexual partners to do so as well. There’s never too much precaution when it pertains to an individual’s sexual health and their well being.
Herpes has not only been treated as something to laugh about, it’s also been deemed as gross and dirty and that only highly sexually promiscuous and irresponsible people can contract. Not only is this false and unfair, but it is extremely dangerous. Anyone could contract HSV-1 or HSV-2, especially if they do not use safe sex practices and properly educate themselves on herpes.
Vanessa Maki is a writer, artist, blk feminist & columnist for Pussy Magic. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in spaces such Entropy, TERSE Journal and so on. She has self-published a handful of chapbooks & currently has two forthcoming in 2020: sweet like limes (Bone & Ink Press) & the chosen one (Animal Heart Press). Learn more by visiting her website.