In Defense of People Who Give You Herpes

Nobody wants an STD. I guess that's why, when it comes to the topic of getting one, or especially the dirty screwed-up sociopaths who give them to people, emotions run high.
Publish date:
June 6, 2012
stds, herpes, real talk, M

Y u hate me?

Nobody wants an STD. (I know that's kind of a sweeping statement, but I feel pretty good about it.) I guess that's why, when it comes to the topic of getting one, or especially the dirty screwed-up sociopaths who give them to people, emotions run high. And why a few times a year, one of these STD vigilante stories pop up, like this chick who posted fliers of a one-night stand who allegedly gave her the herp, this other guy who did the same weird flyer thing and the Oregon woman who was just awarded 900,000 dollars after suing the man who gave her herpes.

The story goes like this: A 49-year-old woman met a 69-year-old man on an Internet dating site. The woman says that she asked her date to wear a condom and he agreed, but when they were actually having sex she realized that he had not put on a condom. Afterward, he told her he had herpes.

I also really like this line from OregonLive: "The woman was looking for a husband. Instead, she ended up with genital herpes." You can have both, you know!

The man, for his part says that he didn't think the disease was transmittable because he wasn't having an outbreak, and that he told her after they had sex because he liked her and wanted her to know that there might be times when they would have to refrain from sex. And look, that may be dumb, but it's not an uncommon kind of dumb. There's a lot of misinformation out there about STDs, even very common ones like HSV and HPV.

You know why there's so much misinformation? Because of the extreme stigma surrounding these widespread infections that keep us from openly discussing them.

And in this specific case, the guy knew he had herpes. But he is the exception, not the rule. In all the media hand-wringing about who gave the creepie crawlies to whom, what almost always gets left out is that most, most infected people do not know they carry the virus. Like, 75% to 90% of people who test positive for HSV-2 have never been officially diagnosed with genital herpes. One study at an STD clinic found that 60 percent of infected women never had any symptoms.

There is a blood test that can test for the presence of HSV-II without outbreaks, but a standard STD test does not screen for herpes. If you've never had an outbreak, or specifically asked to be blood-tested for herpes, you probably haven't been tested. So, in the words of MTV's Diary, "You think you know but you have no idea."

And it's mostly these asymptomatic people who are passing on the virus , not the STD boogie monsters out there willy nilly spreading their cooties as wantonly as they must have spread their legs to get their stupid whore disease. Don't believe me? Believe science! According to this study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "Most HSV-2 infections are acquired from persons without a clinical history of genital herpes." So before you judge someone else, how sure are you of your own status?

Let me repeat that again, because it's important: Most people who infect other people with herpes are doing so unknowingly.

To illustrate the point, I received this letter recently in response to a post we ran about herpes several months ago:

"I was married for 20 years. When I got a divorce, I went and had the whole panel of tests, so I could say I had papers. When I came back positive for herpes, I was floored. I cannot recall ever having an outbreak. I called the ex. He said all his tests were negative! I called the OB who delivered the kids. She said they didn't test for that back then. I called the kids' pediatrician. He said it was really common among women my age (47) to find out this way. This year my gynecologist says I am probably a dormant carrier (and have been for more than 22 years)! Who knew?"

It's stories like this woman's that are much more common than the scare stories we're always hear about. Maybe it makes us feel safer to rail against the evil person we imagine intentionally inflicting us with the Scarlet H. But what would actually make us all safer is if we all went and asked our doctors for blood tests, even if we have always had smug, blemish-free vaginas.

And if we reduced stigma, so that those who do know they're carrying the herpes virus aren't too scared and ashamed to tell you about it. Because even people who knowingly expose others to herpes aren't evil people; they're scared ones. And considering that herpes doesn't kill you, or even necessarily harm you, in the case of the huge amount of people who are asymptomatic or only ever have one outbreak, they shouldn't have to be.

I don't mean to defend this particular guy so much as to point out that the cultural narrative represented by his story is a misleading one. There is not a legion of soulless herpes monsters out to deliberately wreck your once-pristine genitals, and acting as if there are doesn't encourage anyone to be forthright about their status.

I don't begrudge this woman the $900,000 paycheck she'll receive for both contracting the disease and the resultant anxiety and depression. As many of the commenters pointed out, the "I'm wearing a condom/not really" move doesn't exactly inspire sympathy for the defendant.

But for a lot of people, the worst part of having herpes is being subject to the stigma of a society treat a simple skin infection like a death sentence.