I have been MIA the past few weeks because I have been working on a paper for my grad program on genital herpes. The paper is about the social representation of the disease – how genital herpes is discussed and framed in pop culture and the media, etc. I have learned a lot writing this paper and I’m excited to share it with you. Most of what I learned came from my research survey of blogs, film, TV shows, Youtube videos, online forums, images, and health communication theory texts. But a lot of what I learned was more organic than that. I learned a lot about the social perception of genital herpes just from the experience of writing a paper about genital herpes. Let me explain what I mean.
I am a pretty open person and I like to be controversial. That’s why it was strange to me that when I chose genital herpes as my paper topic, I was a little hesitant to share it with my classmates and the world, aka Facebook. But being me, I did it anyway. Dr. Anna Wald, a virologist at the University of Washington, told the New York Times, “ Herpes has a stigma attached to it that even H.I.V. doesn’ t have anymore.” I think she’s right. Recently, Mondo Guerra publicly announced his HIV positive status on Project Runway and there was an outpouring of tears, love, and empathy. This would not be the case for anyone who openly revealed that they had genital herpes on TV. Can you even imagine anyone doing that? We assume that one would have to be crazy to share such a shameful, stigmatizing, and personally damaging secret.
I realized that I was uncomfortable associating myself with genital herpes. Will people think I have it? Why else would someone write a paper about genital herpes and risk that association if they didn’t have it, right? So I pressed on, putting myself at the center of an itty-bitty social experiment. I told everyone about my paper on genital herpes.
For two weeks, my gchat and AIM away message read “herpes, herpes, herpes, herpes.” I received the gamut of responses, from “you have herpes????” to “ewwww” to “I love the fact that you’re comfortable enough to leave herpes as your status message.” I posted updates about my herpes paper to Facebook all the time. Most of them got “likes” from classmates and my former sex counseling buddies from college. In response to a status update noting that just about every Judd Apatow movie includes a herpes joke, a friend joked, “herpes is no joke.”
I wrote the majority of my paper in the Emerson College and Tufts Med School libraries. I couldn’t help but wonder what someone would think if they checked my browser history to find a plethora of articles, info guides, and support forums about genital herpes. I also was wary of judging eyes walking past that might catch a glimpse of “genital herpes” on my screen. I even felt this way in the med school library, where real medical students were making powerpoints with much grosser-looking slides right next to me. (Abdominal surgery pics? Yuck!)
I’m not exactly new to this feeling. I spend a lot of time and energy talking and writing about STI prevention, not to mention about rights and respect for people who have STIs. I’m sure plenty of people have already wondered if I do this because I have an STI. Hell, you’re probably wondering right now. (Would it make me more credible as a sexual health writer if I did? Less credible? Would it change your opinion of me as a person?)
I’ll be completely honest. When I started writing this post, I paused for a second because I realized that writing this post would forever associate my name with genital herpes in the annals of internet history. Me and genital herpes, total Google search bffs. (“Writing about herpes on the internet is like herpes, it will be there for life.”) But I don’t shy away from things like this. That’s kindof what I’m about. Genital herpes is NOT A DIRTY WORD. But think about it. Genital herpes is so stigmatized that even a veteran sexual health blogger thought twice about writing about it.
In the next few days I’ll be sharing some more from my paper about genital herpes stigma, metaphors, “herpes humor,” and narratives. Stay tuned, and take a second to think: Would you be willing to speak out for genital herpes awareness, or openly support those with genital herpes? Or would the risk of stigma-by-association be too great?
Read on to part 2 – Genital Herpes: Actually it IS a joke