Herpes is a virus that, to many of those who have it, is not a big deal in and of itself. What sufferers constantly report is that the herpes stigma is far worse than any actual symptoms, which can range from nonexistent to an occasional nuisance. So why is the topic so taboo?
The Herpes Stigma
Many herpes sufferers say the herpes stigma is ridiculous. Here are people who have a virus that doesn’t physically affect their health too much, and who have approached relationships and sex responsibly, but who still often are made to feel shame about it.
A pharmaceutical company polled 1900 people, 503 of whom said they have herpes, and asked them to rank the stigma of various conditions. HIV came first, with herpes second – ranking the herpes stigma as more taboo than mental illnesses, cancer, and substance abuse.
But when you consider how common herpes is, it’s pretty strange to think that herpes is nonetheless so taboo. About 1 in 4 American women has genital herpes, and 1 in 5 men. For oral herpes (HSV-1), the number is more like 80%. Running both together, you could say most people have herpes.
So why exactly is herpes so scary, and what is the stigma about?
Old Virus, New Stigma
It seems that even though herpes is at least as old as Ancient Greece, it didn’t have the stigma it does now until around 30 years ago, when acyclovir was created. The now common antiviral medicine treated herpes outbreaks, but herpes wasn’t a big enough deal to people to sell the medicine well. So they made it one. They didn’t give acyclovir a lot of airtime. They gave herpes airtime, putting it on magazine covers and reports. Herpes was played up, and became the super scary thing we have today. For more information, see this excellent article by Nigel Scott about court cases in the UK legitimizing the stigma.
Herpes is also easy to overly stigmatize, since it’s not something that comes with the sympathy that a life-threatening problem would cause. It’s something of a joke: herpes is an embarrassment, or just desserts for a cheater.
Putting Herpes in Perspective
Is a person with herpes necessarily reckless or somehow deserving? Of course not, since anyone can get herpes even while using a condom.
And to put things in perspective, there are actually several herpes viruses that are fairly common. They are chickenpox, herpes zoster, shingles, etc. Pretty much everyone gets those. And they, too, are for “life”.
Many people who have genital herpes have HSV-1 (the virus commonly associated with oral herpes or cold sores), only down south instead of on their mouth. They got it from receiving oral sex from someone with a cold sore. And some have said that this genital herpes from HSV-1 is not actually very contagious once it’s been transmitted to the genitals.
Herpes can also be managed easily, and transmission rates can be very, very low when a person is smart and careful.
Moving On with Your Life
You can date and go on with life. Many people have found that with the right attitude, they have been able to avoid rejection and find love anyway. Check out our tips here.