I willed myself to calm the fuck down. No. No. No. This cannot be happening. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest as I lay contorted on my bed. I pushed my pelvis closer to my lamp, attempting to get a good look at the mysterious bump on my labia with a hand mirror. Please be an ingrown hair! I got on my laptop and Googled “herpes” (Safesearch: off). The image results ranged from horrifying, pus-filled blisters to benign-looking rashes resembling the irritation I get in my armpits from scented deodorant. If these are all herpes, I thought, what I have is definitely herpes. I found myself making a foxhole prayer, “God, if you exist, I promise I’ll never have sex again if you make this go away.”
Some 20% of the U.S. population is infected with genital herpes, and a staggering 60% is infected with oral herpes. Usually, oral herpes (cold sores) is caused by Herpes simplex virus Type 1 and genital herpes by a slightly different strain of the virus, Type 2. Still, either strain can cause outbreaks almost anywhere on your body, including (oddly) the fingers and esophagus. Yikes.
This research confirmed my fears. Considering my Number, it’s certain I’ve slept with someone who has herpes. Although I use condoms consistently, my record is far from perfect: there was the meathead one-night stand with the panda tattoo, the personal trainer whose expired condoms kept breaking, and of course my evil, misogynist, boundary-crossing ex-boyfriend. Even with perfect use, condoms only reduce the risk of transmission; they don’t eliminate it.
My blister-like bump went away. Maybe it was an ingrown hair after all? But a month later I was woken up in the middle of the night by an intensely itchy rash on the inside of my thigh where my legs touch. I frantically repeated my Google search and found several images resembling this itchy patch of bumps on my tender skin. I panicked again. I have the herp!
We young people are in major denial when it comes to herpes. We all know someone with genital herpes, yet the stigma endures. Herpes-infected individuals are marked as the contaminated and morally inferior “other.” On the unwritten but universally acknowledged “List of STDS You Really Don’t Want,” HIV usually takes the cake, but herpes outranks gonorrhea and syphilis definitively. There are no NBA players who are open about being infected with herpes. If you have herpes, it’s official: you have fucked way too many people.
Unable to see a doctor for at least another week, I waited hopefully for the rash to go away. It got worse, and itchier, and I thought about it constantly as I tried to act normal. I caught up with a friend, who also happens to be the only person I know who is relatively open about having genital herpes. She was seriously bummed: she had slept with a new dude without telling him she had herpes, and he found out from someone else—which led to a big fight. Any other day I might have scolded her a bit myself: “You are morally obligated to disclose your STD status to all your sexual partners!” But now, faced with the prospect of being held to such a standard myself, I empathized. “I hate being burnt,” she said.
With proper treatment, herpes can be reduced to a minor annoyance. I have heard of long, happy relationships in which the herpes-positive member never infects their partner. Many individuals have only one or two outbreaks their entire lives. Above all, herpes is not life-threatening, doesn’t cause cancer, and won’t make you infertile. Yet its notoriety far exceeds that of the ubiquitous HPV. Yet as I sat there with one of my closest friends, who is acutely aware of these facts and sick of being treated like a fucking leper, I still couldn’t bring myself to say the words, “I think I have herpes, too.” The shame I felt ran deep: I am a dirty slut with a bleak future, I am being punished, and I don’t deserve love.
I finally went to the doctor. To my surprise, the doctor took one look at my rash and said: “That is not herpes.”
“But when I Googled it—”
“Don’t Google your medical symptoms. That’s eczema.”
She wrote me a prescription for a steroid cream and asked if I would like to be tested just in case. I opted for the blood test plus a routine STD screen, which I was due for. I didn’t feel relieved just yet—the blood test was the only way to be sure. Knowing the facts and my sexual history, I now found it hard to believe that I didn’t have herpes. Even if that rash wasn’t an outbreak, I know I have it. I must have it. I still felt like the universe was getting even with me. As a woman, herpes was the price I would have to pay for daring to express my sexuality. I accepted my bag of free condoms and left.
The following Monday, I received a call from the doctor’s office. “Your tests came back negative for Herpes Type 1 and 2, HIV, and gonorrhea.” Hooray!
But she didn’t hang up.
“Also, you came back positive for Chlamydia.”
Hold the phone!
This was not an outcome I had anticipated. Ambushed by Chlamydia! Touché, world.
All sexually-active individuals are at risk for herpes. Therefore all sexually-active individuals are at risk for the shame, stigma, and difficult conversations it entails. Using protection is only half a solution. The other half is scrutinizing my role in the slut-shaming culture that makes life hell for infected individuals. I have resolved to stop using the words “slut” and “whore” to describe other women. I dipped my pinky toe into the experience of living with herpes. And while I know herpes is not the death sentence it’s made out to be, I did not want to jump in.