Genital Herpes (part 2): Actually, it IS a joke.

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.

Part 1: This is a post about genital herpes.

This is a post about genital herpes (part 1)

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

VivaGel isn’t a cure, but it might reduce transmission and stigma

Today Starpharma Holdings Ltd. announced that a new “herpes-killing” gel, VivaGel, might be ready to go on sale by 2012. This is great news, but unfortunately calling it a “herpes-killing gel” is misleading. VivaGel is microbicide designed to stop herpes from spreading from partner to partner. It is NOT a cure for herpes. If you already have herpes, VivaGel will not “kill” it, but rather help protect your sexual partners (the ones with vaginas, anyway) from contracting it. Starpharma Holdings Ltd. is also looking into whether or not the gel will be effective for preventing the spread of HIV.

It seems like this would be a great product for those who already have herpes and their partners. But would it really be effective in reducing the spread of herpes in general? I doubt it. For those more casual encounters, women are not likely to carry around VivaGel in addition to condoms just in case the person they hook up with might have herpes. For one, no one goes into a hook-up thinking their partner might have herpes. Secondly, it would be pretty awkward to try to introduce the gel to your partner without offending them, scaring them, or at the very least, ruining the mood. The reality is that no one will be likely to use the gel unless they are having sex with someone they know to have herpes, with whom they are comfortable enough to talk about the issue. This would most likely apply to people in on-going relationships – those who are (hopefully) already being careful regarding transmission.

The really interesting implication here is that a product like VivaGel might help folks feel more open to dating persons with herpes or other STIs. Having an STI makes dating a challenge, and many folks turn to online dating sites where they can meet others who also have STIs. Social stigma can be blamed for much of the aversion to dating someone with an STI, but part of that aversion is fear due to the real risk of contracting the STI. If VivaGel reduced that risk, it could also reduce social stigma and help us work towards a society in which folks with herpes and other STIs aren’t thought of like lepers, where we are comfortable enough to be honest about our STI status with our partners, and where dating sites aren’t segregated between the “clean” and “infected.”