This is the final post in my series on genital herpes. We we have discussed the fact that genital herpes is the most stigmatized STI – even more so than HIV. We know that herpes jokes are overwhelmingly common and popular, and that anyone offended or hurt by those jokes is silenced by the risk of exposure. We know that people with genital herpes are thought to be sluts, cheaters, and liars. We know that people with herpes are described as lepers, monsters, or “dirty.” We also know from listening to people’s stories that it is a traumatizing and unbearable experience to find out you have herpes, but that after a few years, you go on with your life and it’s not so bad. All of this leads me to the conclusion that dealing with herpes stigma is the worst part about having genital herpes. In other words, the emotional effects of herpes stigma are much worse than the physical effects of the STI. I have even heard that some doctors advise against getting tested for herpes because if you aren’t having symptoms, the the risk of emotional devastation from a false positive is worse than the risk of delaying the diagnosis.
We may not be able to cure herpes, but we can certainly work to reduce stigma associated with it and make the experience of a herpes diagnosis less emotionally devastating. So why aren’t more people trying to do this?
If that’s true, then why don’t messages about genital herpes from sexual health professionals fail to address the pervasive stigmas associated with the disease? Instead of talking about the genital herpes we know from jokes, monster metaphors, Google image searches, and celebrity divorce scandals, health organizations give us dry fact sheets and statistics. The genital herpes described in those fact sheets doesn’t feel like the same genital herpes we laugh at, recoil from, or vilify in pop culture. One explanation is that health communicators avoid acknowledging stigmas and negative metaphors associated with genital herpes in their messaging in order to remain neutral or non-judgmental. It is also possible, however, that health communicators do not wish to reduce stigma because framing genital herpes as “ no big deal,” or “ nothing to fear,” could have negative consequences for prevention efforts because people will care less about being cautious. There may even be perceived incentive to cultivate and encourage stigma in order to “scare” people into practicing safer sex.
Some health resources do address stigma, however. Perhaps the best example of a health resource that acknowledges and addresses the stigma of genital herpes well is the American Social Health Association. The ASHA Herpes Resource Center features personal narratives, hotlines, and support groups, with the same prominence as factual information about the STI. They understand that the emotional devastation of genital herpes is as much a part of the experience of the STI as the physical symptoms, and just as important to treat. The ASHA’ s approach could serve as a helpful model for health providers, educators and communicators. The health education community needs to take an approach that not only encourages prevention, but also discourages further stigmatization of the disease. The medical community needs to take an approach that treats not only the physical symptoms of genital herpes, but the social and emotional effects of the disease as well. And as for individuals, we all need to step up and do our part to get educated and put a stop to this pointless discrimination.
I have spent a lot of time really thinking about genital herpes this month because I’ve been writing a paper on it for school. Most of us, though, don’t spend a lot of time thinking about genital herpes, or how many of our friends might be dealing with the shameful secret and how our careless jokes might make them feel. And since sex is like Russian Roulette and any one of us might wind up with genital herpes, helping to fight the stigma, shame, and fear of the disease will help make the diagnosis less emotionally devastating when/if it happens to us, or our friends or partner.
So here are some things you can do:
- Add “people with STIs, including herpes” to your mental list of groups that face discrimination (like GLBT folks, people with disabilities, women, Muslim Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, etc). Recognize their struggle and support them when you see discrimination happening.
- Take a stand against herpes jokes that would make someone who has it feel ashamed or uncomfortable. Step in and say, “Dude, that’s not funny. How would you feel?”
- Pay attention to language. Pay attention to metaphors like “monster,” “leper,” and “dirty” or “clean.” Try to stop using them yourself, and try to get your friends to stop as well.
- Pay attention to stereotypes. Correct people when they try to say that being a slut means you probably have herpes, or that people with herpes are liars and cheaters.
- Tell your story. If you have herpes, it may be too scary or too risky to “come out” about having herpes in public or to your friends and family. But you can share your story anonymously either online or using a pen name. Share your experience to help dispel the myths about herpes, and to let others know that they are not alone and that herpes is not the end of the world.
- If you’re in college, investigate your health center and on campus sex ed resources. Pay attention to how they talk about herpes and whether or not their approach is reinforcing or rejecting stigma. If you don’t like what you see, try to change it.
If you have other ideas, please share them in the comments.
When I started this series, I talked about how I was uncomfortable with the idea of blogging about this and forever associating myself with genital herpes. I knew that everyone would be wondering if I had it, because why else would I write about it? Well, I’m not going to tell you if I have it. But it’s interesting to think about – if I did, would that change how you felt about what you read? If I didn’t, would it change it in a different way? I don’t know. What I do know is that most people aren’t comfortable enough to speak out about herpes awareness, but I am and I did it. And my world did not come crashing down.
I hope that this, in some way, gives others the courage to speak out and make a difference. Because when almost 25% of the population is demonized for having a virus, well, it’s just unnecessary. People with herpes are not sluts. They are not monsters. They are not predators. They are not dirty. They are just people, and like anyone else with a disease, they deserve respect and compassion. After all, any one of us could end up with herpes. And when that happens, my friend, the joke’s on you.