Last week, seemingly every type of media blew up with a report about a “herpes outbreak” in Southern California. According to the reports, there was a 20x spike in herpes cases in Southern California immediately after the music festival Coachella ended. The headlines were alarmist; the authors were scandalized — and it was all nonsense. First of all, health officials in Southern California are saying that, no, there hasn’t been a spike in herpes cases (in part because it's not an infection that gets tracked, anyway). But what was even worse is that reports about herpes "spikes" only create more stigma around this (extremely common) STI.
Let’s talk a little about herpes, to fully illustrate how messed up the way we talk about it usually is. Herpes is caused by two viruses — herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1), which usually presents as sores around the mouth (also known as “cold sores”), and herpes simplex 2 (HSV-2), which usually presents as sores around the genital area. Both kinds of viruses can show up in either place, however. It’s just that herpes 1 lives in the cells at the base of your neck, making it more likely to show up around your mouth, and herpes 2 lives in the cells around the base of your spine, making it more likely to show up around your genitals. Other than that, they’re pretty much the same thing.
Herpes, of either strain, is super common: The CDC estimates that “more than one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 years have genital herpes.” Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that 67 percent of all people have HSV-1.
And, unlike some other STIs, herpes has no major health effects, other than potentially increasing the risk of contracting HIV if you’re exposed to it. Sure, it can be uncomfortable, but that's about the end of it. It also might not do anything at all, as many people with herpes either have no symptoms or have a very small outbreak that they don’t notice or mistake for something else. And if you do have symptoms and regular outbreaks, there’s medication that can help suppress the virus, making it less likely to occur and more difficult to spread.
When you get down to it, herpes is a skin rash. But because it’s a rash that comes from sex, we freak out about it. And this is where the true damage of herpes lies.
As a sex educator, I’ve spent many hours of my life talking people through a herpes diagnosis. They think they can never have sex again. They think they’re dirty, disgusting. They worry about telling future partners. They know — because we all know — that herpes is one of the most stigmatized STIs there is.
Having those conversations is part of my job, but it makes me so sad. I hate that our sex negative culture has resulted in so many people thinking that a skin rash makes them unlovable or means they’ll never have sex again. I hate that something so common — and so relatively benign — is so stigmatized that a diagnosis is enough to make an otherwise healthy person hate themselves. Seriously. It’s a skin rash.
Culturally, we’ve just started the conversation about herpes stigma and why it’s not okay. Ella Dawson was one of the first writers to talk publicly about her herpes diagnosis in a 2013 essay, arguably ushering in the beginning of a new era of how we talk about STI stigma. But the going is slow: Herpes stigma is still very much a part of the mainstream.
So what can you do about it? First, you can not share sensationalist articles about herpes, or laugh at jokes about herpes, or tell jokes about herpes. And when any of those things happen around you, talk to your friends about what herpes actually is. Point out how common it is and that it doesn’t really have any serious health effects. Highlight the fact that it’s basically just a skin rash.
Whether or not you have herpes yourself, talking about it in a rational, non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing way will help people you know who do have it — and help change the culture as a whole. You might be surprised by how little accurate information it takes to change people’s perspective on this super common STI.
And thanks in advance. Because, let me tell you: I'm very ready to stop having to have these herpes freakout conversations.