Genital herpes occupies a uniquely stigmatized and shameful space in American culture. STIs are always stigmatized due to the cultural and religious moralization of sexuality in America. They are often assumed to be the “consequence” of promiscuity. This stigma is so, unmistakably pervasive throughout American culture that I hardly need to give examples, but I will.
The entry on genital herpes in the Encyclopedia Dramatica, a satiric version of Wikipedia, reads: “ In fact, you get genital herpes because you are a whore.” Right wing blogger Melissa Clouthier writes: “Twice as many young adults ages 20 – 29 have herpes than did 20 years ago. This is a recurring tragedy for the sufferer and his partner–a consistent, unrelenting reminder of promiscuity that cannot be undone.” These examples demonstrate the two different types of slut shaming going on: the former is simple, ignorant shaming for the purpose of “making a funny,” while the latter has a religious/political agenda behind it suggesting that herpes is the consequence of deviant sexual behavior. (See how the Right capitalizes on ignorance and reinforces ignorance all at the same time?)
The connection between genital herpes and promiscuity is consistently made in film and TV as well. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the rock star Aldous Snow reveals to his girlfriend that he has genital herpes: “ Well, look, you know, I’ve not told you I’ve got genital herpes because it’s not inflamed at the moment.” Here, genital herpes is used as a device to emphasize Snow’ s promiscuous, “ rock n’ roll” lifestyle. Stephen Colbert of the Colbert Report poked fun at the association between herpes and promiscuity with a story about oysters infected with a strain of herpes. Colbert called them “ oyster sluts,” asking, “ Come on oysters, have you never heard of protection?”
Perhaps the best recent pop culture example of the link between genital herpes and promiscuity in the American imagination is MTV’ s The Jersey Shore. After the first episode aired, one blogger called it “ The Real World with herpes,” implying that the show was comparable to The Real World, another MTV reality show first broadcast in 1992, but with more promiscuity . In 2010, a Jersey Shore producer made headlines when she said “We hand [Valtrex] out like M& Ms. ‘Hey kids, it’s time for Valtrex!’ It’s like a herpes nest. They’re all in there mixing it up.” The cast of the Jersey Shore denied this allegation in an attempt to avoid the stigma of genital herpes. In later episodes, however, cast members make herpes jokes themselves, categorizing certain women as promiscuous or “ tainted” in a humorous way. In doing so, they become both victims and propagators of this stigma, thus strengthening the association between genital herpes and promiscuity.
About 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 people in the U.S. have genital herpes. If the US population is 310,519,000 (all stats taken from Wikipedia), then that means there are over 51 million Americans with genital herpes right now. That’s more people than there are Latino Americans (46.9 million) or African Americans (37.6 million). What’s the likelihood that all of those people are “sluts,” or “deserved” to get herpes?
Genital herpes is often framed as physical evidence of infidelity. This Saturday Night Live parody (I couldn’t get the embed code to work, sorry!) of a Valtrex commercial plays with this stigma. In the sketch a husband (Alec Baldwin) and wife (Amy Poehler) are sitting together on a couch and it is obvious that the husband has been unfaithful. When the wife says that she finds it odd that a married couple with no history of STIs could have genital herpes, the husband replies: “But then I explained it, and that was the end of it, and there was no need to talk about it anymore.” See how people with genital herpes are further stigmatized, not only as cheaters but as liars? The majority of Valtrex parodies play with the stigma of people with genital herpes as cheaters and liars in a similar way – perhaps suggesting that people believe using Valtrex is dishonest because it makes herpes easier to hide.
Lying about having genital herpes is also discussed in the context of celebrity divorces. For example, David Gest made headlines when he accused Liza Minnelli of giving him herpes inthe midst of their divorce. In an attempt to overturn a prenuptial agreement, DavidHasselhoff’ s ex-wife accused him of infecting her with genital herpes. In some cases, lying about genital herpes becomes a legal or criminal issue. In 2005, a woman sued NFL quarterback Michael Vick for negligence and battery for infecting her with herpes.
Celebrities often use their fame to help raise awareness for diseasesor health-related causes. (Think: Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s Disease.) When it comes to genital herpes, however, no celebrity would risk the stigma of association or exposure. As a result, the only time we hear about a celebrity having genital herpes is in the context of a scandalous rumor, bitter divorce, or lawsuit. No one in their right mind would dare be open about having genital herpes, right?
Then, wait. It’s not safe to be open about having genital herpes yet, you’re a liar and a cheater if you aren’t? Seems like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t here. It’s almost as if we want people with herpes to wear a scarlet “H” on their clothes so we know when to run away screaming. This seems a little much for a disease that is, in actuality, relatively mild condition with hardly any health complications that can be managed quite well with medication.
And speaking of running away screaming, my next post will discuss the different metaphors we use to talk about herpes and the people who have it. *Read Part 4 here.* If you need to catch up, check out part 1 and part 2 of the series.