Genital Herpes (part 4): Herpes makes you dirty and also a monster

Genital herpes stigma is largely constructed and reinforced through metaphor. The dominant herpes metaphors are drawn from the aesthetically repugnant nature of its symptoms (the way herpes lesions look) and liken carriers to “ monsters” or “ lepers.”

The most dreaded are those that seem like mutations into animality (the leper’ s “lion face”) or a kind of rot (as in syphilis). Underlying some of the moral judgments attached to disease are aesthetic judgments about the beautiful and the ugly, the clean and the unclean, the familiar or the alien and uncanny…What counts more than the amount of disfigurement is that it reflects underlying, ongoing changes, the dissolution of the person.

Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors

Considering the graphic and grotesque nature of genital herpes images on the internet, it is not difficult to explain why leprosy is a common metaphor for genital herpes. On Yahoo Answers, a user asks, “ Do you ever get over feeling like a leper?” On another forum, a user wrote: “ I feel like a leper. Who’ s going to accept me like this?” Christopher Scipio, author of Making Peace with Herpes, calls himself a “ modern day leper.”

The thing is, leprosy is actually a real disease that people today still suffer from.  Though it is uncommon in the U.S., the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that between 2 and 3 million people were permanently disabled because of leprosy in 1995. We now know that leprosy, or Hansen’s Disease, is neither sexually transmitted nor highly infectious after treatment. Approximately 95% of people are naturally immune, and people with Hansen’s Disease are no longer infectious after as little as 2 weeks of treatment.  Also, it’s totally curable (when you have the resources).  Hansen’s Disease is probably the most stigmatized illness in the history of illness, and by associating it with genital herpes – one of the most stigmatized illnesses in contemporary western culture – the metaphor mutually harms sufferers of both herpes and leprosy, and sets back the goal of destigmatization for both diseases.

Another prevalent metaphor for genital herpes is the monster metaphor. It is often used to describe the virus itself, i.e., “ the herpes monster,” or by people with genital herpes to describe themselves, i.e., “ I am a monster.” In an online forum, one user wrote: “ The herpes monster has destroyed my life.” On Yahoo Answers, a user writes: “ I feel like a monster.” Another user wrote: “ I’m a monster and I don’ t deserve living.”

Let’s just back up a second. This is a monster:

These are people who could have genital herpes:

There is a difference.

The monster metaphor is central to Ken Dahl’ s aptly named graphic novel, Monsters. The novel is a groundbreaking, semi-autobiographical narrative about the experience of contracting herpes. Despite the fact that the protagonist’ s experience is primarily concerned with oral herpes, I’m including it here because it provides a powerful, illustrative, and in-depth examination of the experience of living with herpes, one that is rarely found in literature.

As is obvious from the title, the monster metaphor is pervasive throughout the novel, both in the text and illustrations: “Sometimes I feel like my body’ s been taken over by a parasitic monster, and sex is now just this monster’ s way of finding new hosts to infect.” Text like this is accompanied by vivid imagery of the protagonist encapsulated in giant, grotesque blobs of sores and pustules.

“Let’ s face it: nobody wants to fuck a monster… and become a monster themselves,” Dahl writes.  In a panel where the protagonist is drawn as Dracula hiding from an angry mob under a bridge, he writes: “ But look at it from the monster’ s point of view. You just want what everyone else wants – acceptance; affection; inclusion… and of course survival. Just for that, your life has to be a gauntlet of pretty faces recoiling in horror.”

Implicit in the monster metaphor are feelings about genital herpes as a manifestation of evil. Susan Sontag wrote: “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.”  As a result of this projection of evil, people with genital herpes are sometimes considered predators or dangerous to the community at large. This is the notion behind the awful, humiliating, privacy-violating and wholly unnecessary STD Carriers Disease Control Prevention Services website. The site hosts a STI carrier “ registry” where users can report people with STIs (including their names and locations) to a public database reminiscent of the National Sex Offender Registry. This website is an unfortunate example of how the monster metaphor and its connection to “ evil” can lead to fear, or even persecution, of people with genital herpes and other STIs.

Another common metaphor in the discourse surrounding genital herpes is the idea that someone infected with HSV is “ dirty” and someone who is not infected is “ clean.” This metaphor is commonly used in reference to STIs and dates back to the nineteenth century. According to Sontag, “Specific diseases, such as cholera, as well as the state of being generally prone to illness, were thought to be caused by an ‘ infected’ (or ‘ foul’ ) atmosphere, effusions spontaneously generated from something unclean.”  Though we now understand that the cause of infection is due to viruses or bacteria rather than miasma, the dirty/clean metaphor is still pervasive. Today, the word “ dirty” also carries a sexual connotation, and for this reason, it is a popular metaphor for people who have genital herpes.

This language is all over the place. One forum user calls genital herpes her “dirty secret.” On Yahoo Answers a user writes: “my friend just told me she has genital herpes, now I can’t help but think she’s dirty.” Another forum user concerned that he might have contracted genital herpes writes: “The two women I slept with swear up and down they are clean.” In a routine called “The Herpes Myth,” stand-up comedian Courtney Cronin seems to differentiate between people who got it because they were victims (someone lied to them, etc) and those that go around spreading it willy-nilly because they are “dirty, disgusting pigs.”

Really? Let’s bring our friends back to demonstrate.


Which one is the victim, and which one is the dirty, disgusting pig? Hmmm…

The dirty metaphor is also used by rapper Immortal Technique in the song, Industrial Revolution: “My metaphors are dirty like herpes but harder to catch.” This example identifies another interesting use of metaphor in which herpes becomes a metaphor in and of itself. Susan Sontag wrote: “First the subjects of deepest dread (corruption, decay, pollution, anomie, weakness) are identified with the disease. The disease itself becomes a metaphor. Then, in the name of that disease (that is, using it as a metaphor), that horror is imposed on other things.” So, herpes is often used as a metaphor to describe something that “keeps coming back,” or “will not go away.” At her Comedy Central roast, comedian Joan Rivers closed with this metaphor: “ I plan to be around for the next hundred years just like herpes. When you least expect it, I will be there.”

(For the record, I am really upset that the only clip of Joan Rivers was put up by those awful, nasty, people behind the STD Carriers website. JERKS!)

You know, Joan has a point.  Herpes IS going to be around forever, and as you get older your chance of getting it only increases.  Do we really want to keep perpetuating these myths about people with herpes as dirty, scary monsters?  Forever?  Sure, maybe putting down those who have genital herpes is a way to make people without herpes feel better (“well, I know I’m not a slut or a monster or any of those bad things because I don’t have herpes!”) but the chances are high that those people will someday contract herpes and what then?  That’s when they – if not everybody – has to face the fact that after vehemently propagating and internalizing this stigma for years and years, they are now stuck inside a shitty social prison of their own making.  Who’s the monster now?

In case you missed them, check out:

3 thoughts on “Genital Herpes (part 4): Herpes makes you dirty and also a monster

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