Jennifer’s post earlier today about an xojane writer who had sex with people knowing that she might be giving them herpes made me feel compelled to chime in. Because she recognizes the stupidity of her actions and has altered her behavior as a result, I’m not going to ream her out like I did Cat Marnell. However, I will take this opportunity to try to understand what might lead a person to act this way, and also to tell you about my own experience with herpes.
I’ve thought about writing this post for a long time, but I’ve always decided against it in the past, because people judge you like crazy when you admit you’ve contracted an STD. But you know what? That’s never going to change if people keep treating it like some kind of terrible secret that would render them social pariahs if anyone found out. Part of why Jennifer Lemons behaved the way she did is because there’s such a huge social stigma attached to herpes that people would rather expose a partner to the virus than tell them they have it, or even that they might have it. And that’s just fucking sad.
I found out about my herpes when I went for a regular round of comprehensive STD testing and it came up in a blood test. Much like the test for H.I.V., the herpes blood test tests for the presence of antibodies in your bloodstream. A positive test for herpes II meant that at some point in time, I’d “come across” the virus and my body had made antibodies. (The doctor’s words, not mine. It’s morbidly funny to imagine myself “coming across” the herpes virus like I’d come across a quote I like in a book.) Whether or not I actually “have” it is somewhat subjective. I have antibodies for it, and I could potentially have an outbreak, but many people who’ve been exposed to it never develop symptoms.
I was absolutely shocked. I’d never had any symptoms (still haven’t), and I’d had a few STD tests since the last time I’d screwed up and had unprotected sex. (You can still get it if you use protection, but the chances are lower.) The reason for this, the doc explained, was that they’d just started doing the herpes blood test on healthy people as part of their regular panel. Up until then, they’d only been using it to confirm a diagnosis in people who’d had outbreaks. (Find out if your doctor does this as part of their regular STD panel; if they don’t, you can request it.)
She explained to me that it’s easier for men to give the virus to women than vice versa, and also that the periods of highest contagion were right before, during, or after an outbreak. She said up to a third of everyone has been exposed to the virus by the time they’re 30. When asymptomatic, the chances of me passing it along were (and are) relatively low. That didn’t stop me from feeling like an evil, diseased whore for ever having slept with anyone, ever.
The good news was that, as STDs go, the virus isn’t too dangerous. You have to monitor it carefully if you’re pregnant, because you can pass it onto your baby during vaginal birth if you’re having an outbreak, but otherwise, the worst it can do is give you nasty blisters, which can be suppressed in most cases with modern medicine.
The test couldn’t determine when I’d been exposed to the virus; I briefly considered doing a Michael Scott style tour of everyone I’d ever slept with to tell them, and also to try to figure out which bastard had given it to me. But ultimately, I decided my asymptomatic herpes was mainly something to be discussed with the guy I was currently dating. (Should I have acted differently? Perhaps.) I told him exactly what the doctor had told me, and we discussed rates of infection and what could be done about it. It might be the most grown up thing I’ve ever done. To his credit, he appreciated my honesty and handled it really well; this was just one more thing that made me think he was someone worth keeping around.
If this story doesn’t sound very dramatic, it’s because it’s not. The most dramatic thing I’ve experienced as a result of this test is the fear of being judged by people if anyone found out. But I think it’s worth whatever damage this will do to my reputation as a lady to make the subject less terrifying for people. Fear and shame lead to fewer people getting tested, fewer people verifying their diagnoses (like the xojane writer), and fewer people discussing their results with their partners. So basically, fear and shame lead to more herpes. And while it’s not the worst thing in the world, I want people to avoid getting it if they can. [tagbox tag="STDs"]
And that’s why I’m about to hit “publish” on the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever written. And that’s saying something.