Ever notice that the only time we hear herpes mentioned in movies or on TV is when it’s the butt of a joke? Genital herpes is an easy target for humor because it is not fatal and the people who suffer from this STI are not usually considered victims. Unlike HIV/AIDS, genital herpes is a relatively mild condition that does not warrant the seriousness or sensitivity that society grants fatal illness. Instead, genital herpes is understood to be a punishment, or something you “ bring upon yourself.” People with genital herpes aren’t though of as victims; they’re thought of as sluts, monsters, lepers, or just stupid. When we combine these factors, people with genital herpes are obvious subjects for ridicule.
A quick search on the Internet Movie Database will reveal that the majority of the films and scripted TV shows that mention genital herpes are comedies. The Hangover features a classic herpes joke: “ What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for herpes – that shit’ll come back with ya.” Another common quip dubs genital herpes “ the gift that keeps on giving.” Let’s not forget this one from Sue Sylvester on Glee: “You know, for me trophies are like herpes. You can try to get rid of them but they just keep coming. You know why? Sue Sylvester has hourly flair ups of burning itchy highly contagious talent.”
Herpes jokes are also common in stand-up comedy. In a routine called “ Herpes Facts,”comedian John Ramsey discusses a statistic from a Valtrex commercial:
The Valtrex commercial Ramsey refers to is part of an advertising campaign that marked thefirst time a herpes medication was advertised to a national audience, making the disease morevisible than it had ever been in the mainstream media. The commercials could have beengroundbreaking in their attempt to normalize the STI, but instead they became a popular vehiclefor the same sorts of stigmatizing jokes the ads were intended to diffuse. The huge number ofValtrex parodies on Youtube demonstrates just how entrenched genital herpes humor is in ourculture, and Valtrex’ s inability to overcome it.
On her talk show, Tyra Banks interviewed Michelle Landry, a woman with genital herpes, about how she felt when she was first diagnosed. She responded: “ I was so shocked. Thinking back to that day, all I thought about was the jokes I’ d heard about herpes, the stigmas.” Tyra then commented on the profusion of herpes jokes in popular culture: “ Like we were talking about earlier, jokes, jokes, jokes… so many people have herpes that I bet a lot of people telling the jokes probably have it.”
So why are these jokes so popular? And why isn’t anyone saying anything about how miserable it must be for people with genital herpes to hear them and have to laugh along in order to avoid detection?
The jokes generally go unchecked since those who find them offensive or cruel are silenced by the fear of association with genital herpes, or the fear of being exposed as having genital herpes. Both outcomes carry the very real risks of shame, judgement, and rejection.
At the root of the “ herpes humor” phenomenon is the extreme stigmatization of genital herpes as a grotesque or disgusting indicator of promiscuity and infidelity. Stay tuned for more on stigma in part 3 of this series.