Be a Considerate Hater

Haters gonna hate, and that’s okay. It’s important to have opinions–it’s how we express our identity, exercise our autonomy, and react to music that makes us want to vom.

But there are different ways to hate on something you don’t like, and how you choose to express your feelings matters. Because the things we like to hate on (music, movies, books, magazines, TV shows, etc.) often matter to people in deep and emotional ways. Hating on something that someone else loves (see image) is a thing that maybe you might want to consider a bit more carefully, especially if that somebody is your friend.

I mean, I suppose you might want to insult your friend in that friendly, joke-punch, “Haha everything you like is terrible! Yay friends!” sortof way. But most of the time, we care about our friends and we don’t want to be intentionally mean to them. But how, then, do we hate on things our friends might like without hurting their feelings? Good news everyone! It’s very simple. Be a considerate hater.

Instead of saying “That book is terrible,” say “I hated that book.”

Instead of saying “Maroon 5 sucks,” say “I really can’t stand Maroon 5.”

Instead of saying “‘2 Broke Girls’ is the worst show of all time,” say “Watching ‘2 Broke Girls’ makes me want to saw my face off with a rusty spork.”

See what I did there?

Instead of making a blanket “This is awful” statement, tell us your reaction to the awfulitude in the first person. Because when you say that something is awful, that’s stating your opinion as if it was an ultimate and singular truth. That invalidates your friends’ opinions because however they feel about it, no, it’s awful. It is, because you said so. Expressing your opinion as fact is a little bit douchey, and more likely to shut down discussion rather than open one up.

Thing is, people have different tastes and preferences. People enjoy different types of things for different reasons, whether it’s “Teen Mom” or Haruki Murakami, “Avatar” or Brad Paisley. And they’re allowed to, dammit. Not everyone has to agree with you. But it’s important to remember that just because you hate country music or opera or sushi or Nickleback (yes, even Nickleback) doesn’t mean it’s unequivocally bad. There are people out there who listen to Nickleback and it just sounds fucking great to them. The same way someone else might listen to Regina Spektor and it just sounds fucking great. Or the way that someone might listen to Lil’ Wayne and think “What is this goddawful noise?” and someone else might listen to opera and go “Yuck!” Diversity!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t hate. Hatin’ is fine, but be a considerate hater. When you hate on something, don’t state your opinion as fact. Hate in a way that expresses your opinion as opinion, thereby validating the differing opinions of others. If you’re not sure how to do this, just start with the basic format: “I hate ___ because _____.”

Boom. You’ve just created a dialogue.

“All Adventurous Women Do”

HBO's GirlsOn the third episode of HBO’s new series, Girls, the protagonist Hannah (played by creator Lena Dunham) is diagnosed with human papilloma virus (HPV). Distraught, she tells her best friend, who replies with the most revolutionary phrase ever uttered on television regarding STI stigma: “All adventurous women do.”

STI stigma is not difficult to understand. Since STIs are sexually transmitted, they’re easy to interpret as punishment for promiscuity. People with STIs are often characterized as slutty, dirty, trashy, or stupid and reckless. And when someone is diagnosed with HPV–no matter how confident she is in her choices, no matter how careful she is–she’s faced with the crushing weight of this stigma. She must try her darndest not to internalize it–not to believe that she is being punished for her sexuality, not to believe that she brought this upon herself, or that this viral infection is indicative of poor moral character. This is extremely difficult because no one has prepared her for this, and she will almost certainly go through it alone.

Since HPV and STIs are treated as a shameful secret, we don’t ever talk about what the process of diagnosis and its aftermath is like, and as a result, we never hear what it was like for someone else. We each have to figure out how to cope on our own, in silence, without the comfort or guidance of those who have been there and can understand. There are no celebrity spokespeople for HPV. No star athlete role models. And so very few narratives in television, film, or literature.

It’s rare to see STIs on television. Rather, it’s rare to see STIs on television outside of medical and crime dramas where STIs are used as a “who done it” plot device to reveal some unexpected twist regarding infidelity or some otherwise inappropriate sexual behavior. It’s rare to see a character simply living with an STI–getting diagnosed, experiencing treatment, navigating relationships, and dealing with shame and stigma in every day life. It’s rare, but it shouldn’t be.

HPV is the most common STI in the United States. The CDC approximates that 20 million Americans currently have HPV, with six million new infections occurring each year. (For reference, 20 million people is roughly the population of Beijing, New York state, and the entire country of Australia.) The CDC estimates that 50% of sexually active Americans (men and women) will contract HPV at some point in their lives, although the American Social Health Association thinks it’s closer to 75-80%. For women, the rates are even higher: the CDC estimates that, by the age of 50, at least 80% of women will have acquired sexually transmitted HPV.

So, if at least 50% of Americans will one day have the experience of being diagnosed with HPV, shouldn’t we be doing something to prepare them for that moment so that the bottom doesn’t drop out from under them? Shouldn’t we let them know that this is a shared experience and that they don’t have to feel so alone? Shouldn’t we be working to combat stigma at the social level so that we can reduce the emotional damage it inflicts?

Writing HPV and other STIs into television narratives is a great way to challenge and combat stigma. Especially when the character is able to make peace with the diagnosis, providing a model for the rest of us.

“All adventurous women do.”

In that one glorious sentence, Girls let us know that HPV is common and that instead of a being a sign of poor character, it’s a mark of an adventurous spirit. This one line erases the stigma and reframes HPV as something normal, even positive. “All adventurous women do” allows Lena Dunham’s character Hannah to own the diagnosis, to embrace it, to wear it as a badge of honor. And it teaches the rest of us–all of us girls who have felt the waves of shame and guilt crashing on top of us, suffocating us–that we are okay. That HPV, much like traveler’s diarrhea, is just another part of the experience of being an adventurous woman in the 21st Century.

Call me maybe: Problematic yet adorable?

This post is entirely James Franco’s fault. Ever since I saw the somewhat-dull video of James Franco and friend singing along to Carly Rae Jepsen’s catchy-yet-insipid song, “Call Me Maybe,” it’s been stuck in my head. And, like everyone knows, the only way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to the song. So, today at work, I did. Via Youtube. Then, on the third repeat (whatever shut up!) I actually watched the video.

Yes, it’s just another (mostly) heteronormative pop video full of white, attractive, cis people. But. It’s also kind of adorable in an almost-progressive way.

First of all, it reverses the “girl next door” trope by making the boy next door the object of a girl’s fantasy. Second, Carly (or is it Carly Rae?) plays with the “sexy car wash pin-up girl” cliché by awkwardly trying to perform the sexual self-objectification that women know we’re supposed to buy into in order to capture the male gaze. (Oh and did you notice that her male band-mates are the one who suggest this tactic?) Then the romance lit analogy! Our protagonist has clearly bought into the hetero romance narrative (damsel in distress, hero as protector, etc) and fantasy and then, and then!, her hero turns out to be gay! Subversive? Just a little bit, maybe?

Okay, the “Surprise! He’s actually gay” narrative is not exactly new or progressive, but I still wasn’t expecting to see it in this video. I was expecting girl meets boy, girl rescued by boy, boy kisses girl. (Then again, I’m the kindof person that never suspects plot twists before they’re revealed.) And yes, they totally objectified the male neighbor and it would have been better if the male band member accepted his number with less of a shocked expression, but hey, what are you gonna do? Even though I recognize that a lot of things about this video are problematic, I was still pleasantly surprised by the way it played with tropes about gender, sexuality, and romance. Do you agree? Well, here’s my number. Call me, maybe!

Women have a right to dress slutty on Halloween, and to feel safe doing It

Would that there were more occasions to wear catsuits!!!

This is a post I wish I didn’t have to write. But the LA Times found this op-ed by Charlotte Allen somehow credible enough to publish, and so I have to. This is a post in defense of dressing slutty on Halloween. It is a post arguing that dressing slutty, for Halloween or any other occasion, is not an invitation for rape. This is an argument that really shouldn’t have to be made in 2011, but sadly, here we are.

Charlotte Allen juxtaposed dressing slutty with Halloween and the Slutwalk movement. She argues that feminists (all feminists – ’cause we’re all the same, apparently) are hypocrites because we rally against slutty Halloween costumes, yet bare all at our Slutwalks. Then she goes on to say that feminists are in denial of the “reality” that visual stimuli somehow makes men’s brains tell them to rape, and that rape is linked to hotness, or youngess, or something. Basically she’s saying that dressing slutty invites rape and women should know better and if it happens, it’s probably your fault for being an idiot feminist in denial.

(Did I just put words in Allen’s mouth? Sorry, I couldn’t help it. As my friend Simone said, “I want to punch this op-ed in the face!” Read it for yourself if you want to check the accuracy of my interpretation, but fair warning, it may make you feel stabby.)

Here are some points that Allen missed about feminists, Slutwalks, and sexy Halloween costumes:

1. Not all feminists feel the same way about dressing slutty on Halloween or Slutwalks. Not all feminists support Slutwalks.

2. Feminism is – in the most basic terms – about being free to make choices. Feminists write angrily about sexy or offensive Halloween costumes for women not because they don’t believe women should ever dress sexy or slutty on Halloween, but because the proliferation of sexy costumes is so great and so overwhelming that it’s difficult to find something that isn’t a sexy version of a regular costume. There are very few CHOICES for women outside the sexy/slutty genre. Being angry that 99% of costumes offered for women (and even young girls!) are “sexy-something” costumes is not only rational, but not the same thing at all as telling women they shouldn’t dress slutty on Halloween.

3. When feminists share ideas for non-sexy Halloween costumes, they aren’t (or shouldn’t be) trying to encourage women to “cover up” or shame women who choose to dress slutty; they are simply helping women who choose not to dress slutty come up with some ideas because non-sexy ladies costumes are few and far between.

Here are some points that Allen really doesn’t understand about feminism, rape culture, and a woman’s right to dress slutty on Halloween:

1. Allen wrote, of Slutwalks, “Women get another chance besides Halloween to dress up like prostitutes!” Well, yeah! I would argue that women don’t have enough opportunities to dress up as prostitutes, or anything else. For those of us who aren’t actors or burlesque dancers or LARPers, socially acceptable opportunities to dress up – in ANY costume – are rare. I don’t think I need to hash this out, but for many, dressing up like a slut is FUN. People who enjoy dressing slutty do it because it makes them feel sexy. For most, Halloween is a once-a-year chance to channel our inner sex kitten. Dressing slutty is a choice that women should be empowered to make for themselves. It would be anti-feminist to suggest otherwise, or shame a woman for dressing in a way that makes her feel good.

2. Dressing slutty is not an invitation to rape. Ever. Seriously. Period. Rapists will rape no matter whatever the fuck their victims are wearing. Dressing conservatively will not protect anybody from rape. Suggesting that men are susceptible to “visual stimuli” and therefore unable to control themselves around sexy-dressed ladies is supremely offensive to men.

3. In a perfect world, women should be able to feel safe wearing a sexy costume. They also have the right to feel safe walking down the street bundled up in a winter coat but the reality is that often, they aren’t safe. Not because they’re wearing the wrong thing or “sending mixed signals” or whatever the fuck, but because of op-eds like Allen’s, that continue to place the blame, the shame, and the responsibility on women instead of working to prosecute rapists and educate would-be-rapists.

What Allen truly misses about feminist responses to dressing slutty is this:

We are about breaking down rape culture, not breaking down women who want to wear catsuits on Halloween.

A world without hate-speech is anything but boring

I was recently g-chatting with someone who was annoyed that their printer wasn’t working. Then they called their printer a “faggot.” Long story short, I won’t be speaking to this person again.

It’s not like I have a “one strike, you’re out” policy on offensive words. Actually, I’m a bit more forgiving than I should be, probably because I have personally found it hard to stop saying a few choice words that I know are wrong. But the point is that I know they are wrong, and I am trying to stop using them. When this person used the real F word and I called him on it, he had no such awareness that it was wrong.  Instead, he threw the classic argument at me: “Being PC (politically correct) is boring/dull/stifling/etc.” Well, I’m sorry to say it but that argument is bullshit.

I pity all the people out there that think that a world where people cannot say hateful words would be “boring” or “stifling.”  Talk about a lack of imagination.  If you cannot even imagine finding other words to use to describe a broken printer or more creative ways to tease your friends, then I feel fucking sorry for you.  How limited your mind must be.

The ridiculous part of this is that there is a large community of people who have colorful, vibrant, and terribly inappropriate conversations on a regular basis using delicious words that are snarky, mean, and biting – but totally PC. (Hello the feminist blogging community!) Enter one of my personal favorites: “douchebag.”

Why is it awesome to call someone a douchebag? Because douching is stupid and unhealthy for women, not to mention gross, and that’s something everyone basically agrees on. Everyone is, and should be, offended by the idea of douching. And that’s why it feels so good to call someone a douchebag. You get to express your feelings in a colorful, pointed way that is not reinforcing the legacy of hate, violence or oppression of a disadvantaged group.

But even the worst of words – “faggot,” “nigger,” “kyke,” etc. – have their place in our culture. No one is advocating (or at least no one SHOULD be advocating) that they disappear entirely.  These words have power, and they need to remain as a testament to the past so that we do not forget the danger of allowing hate to flourish.  Sometimes these words can even be reclaimed and become empowering, like “queer.” It’s truly unfortunate that certain groups really miss the forest for the trees about this – like the people removing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn. How can we expect to learn the lessons of our own history if we sanitize it, or erase it completely?  As the saying goes, “those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.”  I understand and agree with the argument against that type of censorship, but that’s hardly the same thing as throwing around the word “faggot” for no particular reason.

The underlying truth behind the “PC is boring” myth is that people who cannot envision a world without hate-speech are one of two things.   They either do not have any experience of hate and oppression and therefore do not understand how it is perpetuated by language, or they’re just plain racist/sexist/classist/homophobic/etc. I’m not sure what there is to do about the latter group, but I’m pretty sure the actions of the former make it easier for them to be hateful without owning up to it or even being cognizant of their own prejudice.  A culture in which it’s acceptable to use hateful words allows bigots to slip under the radar and there is no accountability for the perpetuation of hate.

The majority of people, I would like to think, are not actually hateful. They just don’t get it. I wonder how many of them have been privileged never to experience hate-based violence or oppression.  Or how many have experienced it but are somehow unable to recognize the role that language plays.  I am certainly privileged in a number of ways, but I am not that distanced from the reality of hate. Every time I hear someone use the word “faggot” I think about Matthew Shepard.  I think about his brutal and cruel murder.  And I think about my own family.  I think about ovens and ditches full of bodies. I think about the family members that I never got to meet because they were tortured to death.  I am acutely aware of the power of hate-speech. I cannot speak for everyone.  We each react differently to certain words, but I’d venture a guess that most of us have some reaction to at least one of those words. It’s pretty rare to go through life not knowing anyone who has experienced hate. That is a reality that needs to change, and language is an important part of making that change happen.

But I am not the “PC-Police.”  I am not a “PC Nazi.”  (Nazi, like douche, is another great insult to throw around. Everyone hates Nazis!)  After all, I like South Park! And I swear!  Plenty.  My world is anything but boring or dull. I love to insult people and yell obscenities at inanimate objects. When my printer breaks I bash my fists and curse the damned piece of shit as the ILLEGITIMATE PROGENY OF FAIL that it really is!  But I don’t call it a “faggot.”  Not only would that be insensitive and morally repugnant, it’s completely uncreative and boring – not to mention that it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

If the only colorful words you have to work with are hate-speech, then it’s YOUR world, not the PC world, that’s boring, dull, and absolutely stifling. Get an imagination and get a life — or you can get out of mine.

Why I love Veronica Mars

This weekend I rewatched the first season of Veronica Mars, one of my all time favorite tv shows.  Veronica Mars, which aired in 2004, is about a teenage girl trying to solve the mystery of her best friend’s murder.  Veronica assists her father as a private investigator and puts her sleuthing skills to work to help classmates at school while she continues her murder investigation in secret. Veronica Mars is completely badass and as good of a feminist role model as you are going to find on television. I made the video below as a tribute to Veronica Mars.  It’s a compilation of scenes from the first season that illustrate why I think she’s so kick-ass.

Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency made a great video explaining why she loves this show. She makes a lot of great points, and while I’m not going to repeat them all here, I would like to expand them a little bit.  I’m also not going to discuss the show as a whole and just focus on Veronica and why I think she’s a great role model for teenage girls.

1.  Veronica Mars is smart.  She’s in the top of her class and manages to keep her grades up despite her time-consuming detective work.  She’s not afraid of technology, using advanced cameras and spy gadgets and the like. She uses her wit to solve problems, resolve disputes, and find the truth.  She’s also not afraid to ask for help when she needs it.

2.  She apologizes when she makes mistakes.  Veronica Mars is not perfect. Sometimes she goes too far and she invades a friend’s privacy or betrays someone’s trust.  She always apologizes sincerely – a vital social skill that is often overlooked.

3. She doesn’t compromise on her ideals.  The series begins after Veronica is cast out of the popular crowd because she and her father refuse to accept that the man who confessed to the murder was really the killer.  After a year of bullying at school, she is given the chance to admit she was wrong and sorry and rejoin her old group.  She decides not to, saying that she didn’t feel “the least bit wrong, or sorry.”

Occasionally her grasp of right and wrong can seem a little too black and white.  For example, when her father tries to explain that her mother’s reasons for leaving are complicated, Veronica says, “No. The hero is the one who stays, the villain is the one who leaves.” This kind of “all or nothing” morality  is problematic but feels realistic because it helps remind us that, despite her maturity, she is still a teenager.  Still, it’s heartening to watch her resist peer pressure and stick to her guns despite whatever effect it may have on her social life – something that is rare among teenagers on TV or in real life.

4.  She sticks up for the little guy.  Along the same lines as #3, Veronica stands up for people she sees getting bullied.  I cannot stress enough how incredible this is.  It takes a lot of guts to stick your neck out for someone else, and it’s something that does not happen enough – especially in high school.

Veronica’s story in the first season is very much a coming of age story.  The murder of her best friend and rejection by her peers is a huge turning point in Veronica’s life as she loses her innocence and struggles to rebuild her identity as a strong and independent young woman. Her story is complex, yet relatable and instructive. It has so much more to offer than the simplistic morality lessons on other teen dramas like Secret Life of the American Teenager or Glee.

I sincerely recommend that you watch the first season of Veronica Mars, and share it with your kids if you have any.  (The second and third season are terrible, but the first season can stand on it’s own.)  We need more shows on television with female characters like Veronica.  And, it would be great if Kristen Bell could find some equally awesome movie roles.  It hurts to see our beloved, sharp-witted Veronica fall into the “pretty blonde” rom-com void a la Katherine Heigl.

So, here’s to you, Veronica. Let’s hope we see some more like this on tv soon.

#ThingsWomenShouldStopDoing

Noticed a fun Twitter trend today: #thingswomenshouldstopdoing. The responses I think demonstrate a really huge dichotomy between those with feminist and anti-feminist perspectives.  Some language is NSFW and/or possibly triggering.

This is only a small sampling of tweets, and more are coming in by the second.

It seems like everyone has lots of advice for women – about their appearance, relationships, sex, habits, bodily functions, and relations to both men and other women.

So.. what about #thingsmenshouldstopdoing?  Oh – yeah, it happening too.

I don’t have time to keep grabbing these, but you can see more for yourself on Twitter.

Overall, there seems to be a couple commonalities. Both men and women are tweeting about what men and women should do – although it seems as though there may be more men tweeting about #whatwomenshouldstopdoing than about #whatmenshouldstopdoing, when women tweeters seem to be equally represented on both.  Regardless, there are a lot of people giving advice about what men should wear and how they should treat women or have relationships.

There are some differences though. For men, the most common theme seems to be either “stop being so aggressive/controlling/domineering” v. “stop being a bitch/pussy/wimp.” For women, the most common theme seems to be “stop trying to look perfect/wearing makeup/worrying about your weight” v. “stop looking ugly/sloppy/fat.” Talk about mixed messages…

I also noticed that there were no feminists weighing in on #whatmenshouldstopdoing and that no one was really making a case for men’s self esteem they way some were for women. Like, “#thingsmenshouldstopdoing Feeling like they have to be hyper masculine,” for example.  (Male feminists – get in on this!)

I’m not sure if there is any real value to a Twitter sampling like this, but I think can help “take the pulse” of a culture at a moment in time. What do you think?

How should we celebrate Teen Halloween?

Jack-o-latern

Image via Wikipedia

Halloween used to be my favorite holiday.  I loved dressing up in elaborate, homemade costumes and going trick or treating.  I loved it more as I got older.  I think the fun of trick or treating peaked for me in high school.  Yep, I was a teenage trick or treater.  Trick or treating with friends – especially friends who could drive – was exponentially more fun than trick or treating with your parents.  My friends and I hung on to trick or treating as long as we could, going for the last time our freshman year of college.  I had just turned 18, and judging by the response of the adults in the neighborhoods we chose to pillage, we were officially too old to be trick or treating.

From then on, I had to navigate the strikingly different progression of adult Halloween traditions that involve serious partying (either at bars, nightclubs, or house parties) and hyper-sexual costumes for women.

In only one year Halloween stopped being about this:

And started being about this:

I am grateful that I made it to age 18 before I began participating in these types of Halloween celebrations. According to ABC News, however, many cities are banning teenagers from trick or treating.

This makes absolutely no sense to me.  Banning teenagers from trick or treating forces them to find alternatives and for most kids, that will mean finding an unsupervised house party or college party with alcohol.  And since at a party you’re dressing to impress your peers, and you wont be in the company of elder neighbors or small children, young women may be more tempted or pressured to dress like a “sexy kitten,” “sexy nurse,” or Snookie. And if a teen doesn’t have a house party to go to, they could also be tempted to engage in the more traditional types of “mischief night” or “cabbage night” vandalism. Boredom is a huge motivator behind pumpkin smashing, egging, and TPing.

I suppose some might argue that teenagers are competing with younger children for candy, and that their participation might deprive some youngsters. I feel like this is a minor problem.  For one, teens are likely to go out a little later than the youngsters and will most likely be grabbing up the leftovers.  Also, if one were to run out of candy before the teenagers arrive, it wouldn’t be a tragedy.  Since teenagers can buy their own candy whenever they want, teen trick or treating isn’t about the candy.  It’s about dressing up and hanging out with your friends.

As a society, we get up in arms about the sexualization of young girls and about the perils of binge drinking.  So why on earth would we force teenagers to cut their childhood even shorter, slap on a corset and cat ears, and pick up a solo cup?  In this case, it really might be better to get teens back out on the streets, hitting the pavement for a few Kit-Kats and M&Ms.

Genital Herpes (part 6): Conclusions

This is the final post in my series on genital herpes.  We we have discussed the fact that genital herpes is the most stigmatized STIeven 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.

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?

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