In 2018 the World Health Organization announced that 417 million people have genital herpes worldwide (aka 11% of the population) and 3.7 billion people have oral herpes - over two-thirds of all humans. Given these statistics, it’s actually pretty likely you already have it and have had sex with someone that has it too!
However, despite herpes being a common experience for many of us (some of us unknowingly), we are far from normalizing the virus. Though herpes may complicate things slightly, you can still have a fulfilling sex life after a herpes diagnosis.
So what is herpes?
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is a common virus related to chicken pox and shingles and medically speaking, it's a type of rash. The HSV virus lives in the nerves and when active, it travels to the surface of the infected area (skin or mucous membrane) and makes copies of itself. This is called "shedding" and these new viruses can, at this time, rub off on another person. There are many things that can activate the virus including a compromised immune system (aka when you’re already feeling unwell), stress, poor diet, damaged skin or irritation, certain medications, or fluctuations in hormones.
When experiencing a outbreak of the virus, common symptoms include a sore or collection of blisters that are painful, irritating, and even itchy. A herpes flare up only last a few days, though it can take time for the skin to fully heal. There are various medical treatments and home remedies available that can reduce the length of the flare up as well as curb the uncomfortable symptoms. After a few days when the virus has begun to clear up, the virus travels back down the nerve to a ganglion (mass of nerve tissue), usually at the base of the spine, where it lies dormant, either temporarily until the next outbreak or permanently, never showing up again. Outbreaks tend to lessen over time. You may experience many outbreaks during your first year of having herpes but they will eventually taper off, maybe even stop all together.
Though often referred to as oral herpes (Type 1) and genital herpes (Type 2), both strains of herpes can occur anywhere on your body aka you can get a sore on your crotch. Both strains are extremely similar and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that herpes was divided into two to different types - HSV-1 and HSV-2
Unlike other STDs that are spread by fluids, HSV is spread by skin-to-skin contact when the HSV-affected person sheds their tiny skin cells into some kind of opening on their partner’s skin. Herpes isn’t only spread via sexual contact. You can catch the herpes virus from any skin to skin contact. It’s extremely common for people living in close quarters, family members, friends, co-workers etc. to spread the virus between them. One of the most common places herpes is passed around (like many other infections and infestations) is actually by children in school! In very rare cases herpes can be transferred on surfaces that have come in contact with the herpes outbreak but this is very uncommon. Because the virus dies very quickly when exposed to air, unless the surface very recently touched the virus, transferring it isn't an issue most of the time.
Most standard STI screenings do not include testing for both strains of HSV unless you or your Dr specially request that the test be done. Most people discover they have HSV-1 and/or HSV-2 after seeking treatment due to an outbreak. However, if your status was discovered via a blood test when there were no physical symptoms, it may be the case that you’ll never have an actual outbreak. Many people who have the herpes virus in their system have strong enough immune systems to prevent an outbreak and therefore it becomes a dormant, asymptomatic infection.
This being said, the widely available tests for herpes are famously inaccurate and can give false positives up to 50% of the time. In some cases they can fail to detect the virus at all. Due to the lack of testing, the under-diagnosis of the disease means that people fail to recognize how common it is, creating a situation where those who are accurately diagnosed are likely to feel shame or embarrassment, while a large chunk of undiagnosed infected people are unaware.
Though it is unclear when the first occurrence of herpes being medically documented was, there was a distinct point in time when people started stigmatizing it. Until the 1970’s, the herpes simplex virus, not matter where it showed up on your body, wasn’t seen as anything other than a mild annoyance that many people experienced. It was common practice not to treat symptoms at all - instead most people who experienced an outbreak simply waited for it to pass. However, due to struggles in trying to sell their Zovirax topical herpes medication, pharmaceutical retailer Burroughs Wellcome intentionally created public hysteria over the common virus with a sensationalized marketing campaign. As this manufactured stigma grew around herpes in all its forms, so did the profit Burroughs Wellcome accrued from sales of its anti-viral medications. Playing on the social consequences of having a visible outbreak, the demand for herpes medication further increased in the 1980’s when pharmaceutical companies began being able to market their products directly to the public. Since then, the stigma around genital herpes has developed, yet our public understanding of the virus hasn’t.
It is common for people to fear what they don’t understand, and herpes is a perfect example of that. While the virus itself is uncomfortable and sometimes a little painful, the most distressing aspects of having herpes are social ones. People with herpes can experience drops in self-esteem, feelings of shame, and a tendency to isolate themselves. There are studies that show the rate of depression in people with herpes increases exponentially after a diagnosis. This turmoil also translates to relationships. Since most people are unaware that the herpes virus can be dormant in your system for years and can be transmitted from contact that isn’t sexual, some people assume their partners are cheating.
Having herpes says nothing about the kind of person you are. The truth is anyone can have herpes - from people who have many partners to those who aren’t sexually active. If you are one of the many people who has HSV 1, 2, or both, remember that your diagnosis does not define you. Herpes is a common condition that is simple to manage.
Whether you have the HSV or not (odds are you might!), we can all do our part in breaking the stigma around herpes. The best way to combat stigma is to normalize it. Educating yourself and sharing that knowledge with others is a profound step in the right direction. Stigma feeds off of misinformation. Shutting down herpes related jokes and tropes and not supporting those who perpetuate the cycle of social shame is also vital. Share your understanding of the virus and the fact that most of us have it.
It is ethically responsible to tell your partner you have herpes before you engage with sexual contact with them. Allowing them to be fully aware of the circumstances is the only way they can truly give their informed consent. However, due to the current lack of understanding of herpes and just how common it is, disclosing to a partner can seem like a difficult task.
It can be tempting to not disclose your herpes status simply to avoid the uncomfortable conversation take about herpes can cause. It can be scary telling someone a sensitive thing about yourself and not knowing how they will react. However there are some ways of communicating that can make the experience easier.
The setting and timing can affect the outcome of your experience. Have this conversation outside of the bedroom before things get heated. When communicating to a new partner, present the situation in an informed and neutral way. If you suggest that it’s wrong, shameful, or a problem, you will reinforce a possible negative reaction that your partner may have. Do not suggest how your partner should react, instead allow them to express how they feel.
Offer to answer any questions for them and suggest the option to take some time to do research of their own if they want to. There are plenty of other fun sexy activities you can do in the meantime together that don’t involve direct genital contact like mutual masturbation.
Herpes is relatively easy to manage compared to other STIs, allowing you to have a fulfilling sex life. Between herpes outbreaks, it’s ok the have sex as long as your partner understands and accepts the risks associated. Though the risk is considerably less, you can still pass herpes on to a partner even when no symptoms of an outbreak are present. Using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams during sex have been shown to significantly lower the rates of transmission, but it’s still possible to pass on herpes even when using this kind of protection.
There are antiviral drugs that can be taken at the sign of an outbreak to curb its development or as a daily therapy that can also lower transmission rates. Suppressive therapy is about 50% more affective in preventing transmission than without it. If you think these medications could be beneficial for you, visit your doctor or local clinic. Also remember that there are many other way to explore sex and sensual feelings with a partner that don’t avoid genital contact and can be great go-to’s during an outbreak.
While having herpes can be an uncomfortable experience in various ways, there are easy ways to manage your condition in a ways that doesn't affect your sex life much. As long as you educate yourself, inform your partners, and know your sexual alternatives during a break out, having a herpes diagnosis (either HSV-1 or HSV-2) can be very manageable. While the current stigma can seem overwhelming at times, the more we normalize herpes and stay neutral about this very common condition, the less a herpes diagnoses will affect all of our lives. And normalizing herpes is a necessary thing seeing as the majority of us have it!
All images created for Wild Flower by @myboyfriendhasherpes