There's enormous stigma against STIs. Rather than view them like a cold, flu, or other infections we recognize as capable of happening to anyone, we too often view them as results of some moral shortcoming. This leads to a lot of myths about herpes and other STIs. Sheila Loanzon, MD, has encountered these myths both as an OB/GYN and as someone who has herpes herself. Despite the stigma she faced, she chose to talk about her STI and write about it in her book Yes, I Have Herpes.
"I realized that for me to attain what I really wanted in life, it would be best for me to accept, love, and confidently embrace my diagnosis. I discovered that once I acknowledged and accepted this part of me, the rest of my life fell into place, particularly with my career, friendships, and partner," Loanzon tells Bustle. "I thought of my young patients who I diagnose in the office, and having someone they can relate to is so reassuring to them. Thirdly, I wanted to put a face to the virus so that the next time herpes becomes a punch line in a joke, perhaps for my friends and family, it is no longer a nebulous virus out there, but one that is tangible and present."
Here are some myths that keep us in the dark about herpes, according to Loanzon — and here's the truth about them.
Myth 1: Most People Don't Have Herpes
About 85 percent of the population has herpes, says Loanzon. Over two thirds of people under 50 worldwide have oral herpes, according to the World Health Organization, and one in four women and one in five men have genital herpes. So actually, more people have some form of herpes than not.
Myth 2: You Have To Have A Lot Of Sex To Get Herpes
This is part of how we moralize STIs: by making it seem like only "dirty" or "slutty" people get them. In reality, having sex once is enough to get herpes. In fact, so is kissing. "The only way to not get herpes is to be abstinent," says Loanzon. "Most often, I diagnose patients with herpes from their very first sexual encounter, frequently from receiving oral sex from a person who has a history of cold sores."
Myth 3: You Can Get Herpes From A Toilet Seat
One way herpes can't be transmitted, however, is through an inanimate object, says Loanzon. You'd have to actually touch someone with the infection.
Myth 4: You Can't Date With Herpes
If people with herpes couldn't date, the great majority of us would be forever single. Some people may unfairly judge those with STIs, but most people Loanzon knows who have been open about their diagnoses have found people who accepted them. "It has not limited them," she says. "In fact, it has broadened their careers, helped them find trusting partners, and increased their bandwidth of happiness because they are living true to themselves."
Myth 5: If You've Gotten A Blood Test, You'd Know If You Had Herpes
Because blood tests for herpes are often inaccurate, the CDC recommends against using them, says Loanzon. You'd need to get a culture from your doctor instead. Many people never get one, leading people to spread herpes without realizing it.
Myth 6: If You Just Find Out You Have Herpes, Your Last Partner Gave You It
"There is no confirmation tool to determine who transmitted the virus to you," says Loanzon. "The virus may have come from your very first sexual experience, or it may have come from your current partner." In fact, since the majority of us have herpes, it's likely multiple partners of yours have it. Pointing fingers won't do anything to treat the infection or end the stigma.
Myth 7: You Can't Get Pregnant If You Have Herpes
First of all, herpes doesn't affect your fertility. Second of all, oral herpes can't be transmitted through childbirth, and while genital herpes can, you can drastically reduce your chances of passing it on to your child through suppression medication, says Loanzon. If a baby is born with herpes, it's treatable with antiviral medications.
Once you learn the facts about herpes, you realize it's not just common — it’s unavoidable, says Loanzon. Which makes it all the more ridiculous to stigmatize it.