The amount of people who actually have herpes will amaze you
There’s no denying that the stigma against STIs is totally out of control — no matter how much we talk about how prevalent STIs are or how easy it is to manage the symptoms of many of them, the stigma just doesn’t seem to budge. But with STI rates in America at an all-time high, it’s time that we all educate ourselves on what it means to have an STI and start busting through the taboo.
And if there’s one STI that is surrounded in misunderstanding, judgment, and confusion, it’s herpes. Herpes has been a shorthand for “gross” for far too long — and it places an unfair burden on those who actually have it. (Which, by the way, is probably a much higher number than you think, for both genital and oral herpes.)
But before we get into that, it’s important to understand what herpes, also known as the herpes simplex virus, actually is. "Herpes simplex virus is categorized into two types: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 are highly infectious and incurable," the World Health Organization explains. "HSV-1 is primarily transmitted by oral-oral contact and in most cases causes orolabial herpes or 'cold sores' around the mouth. HSV-2 is almost entirely sexually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, causing genital herpes." But the relationship between the two strands is complicated — and the number of people out there who have contracted both of them is probably higher than you think.
Pretty much everyone you know has herpes
Sorry to break it to you, but pretty much everyone you know has herpes. Seriously. Some estimates point to 85 percent of people having one form of herpes or the other. And the World Health Organization has said that two-thirds of people under 50 have oral herpes — so we’re talking over 65 percent. It’s also thought that around one in four women and one in five men have genital herpes. Yup, it’s that common.
So why is there a stigma? If most people have some form of herpes, it seems pretty ridiculous that we would still think of it as an unusual infection — or one that’s worthy of our judgment. Herpes is so contagious that contracting it is by no means a reflection on you — it’s not about sleeping around (which isn’t a bad a thing anyway, as long as you're safe) and it’s not about not taking care of yourself. Anybody can get herpes and, as the numbers show, many of us do.
Oral herpes and genital herpes are more alike than you think
One of the reasons so much of a stigma still exists around herpes is that people don’t understand the relationship between oral herpes and genital herpes — because, quite frankly, it’s kind of complicated. But what you need to know is that though HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes and HSV-2 primarily cause genital herpes, that’s not always the case. You can get either kind of herpes anywhere on your body. You can get oral herpes on your genitals or genital herpes on your mouth. Hell, you can get genital herpes on your arm or oral herpes on your knee cap — either of them can appear anywhere.
This makes it so much more difficult to understand why there’s a stigma against genital herpes. People often think of cold sores as totally normal, as no big deal — but they think of genital herpes as something dirty or gross. The truth is, they can be literally the same thing — the same strand of the same infection. The more we educate people about herpes, the more we can start to eradicate the stigma.
Management is so much better than people realize
Another issue with the herpes stigma is that people focus on the fact that it’s incurable — and it is, you can never get rid of it completely. But it is very manageable. Treatment with antiviral medications can help reduce the frequency of outbreaks, help them heal quicker, and help stop the spread of herpes to other people. And, of course, safe sex is key. Many people with herpes go through long periods of no symptoms or outbreaks and have great coping mechanisms in place for when outbreaks do happen. Herpes is definitely not a death sentence for your sex life. You can have a happy, healthy — and safe — sex life after a herpes diagnosis. If more people understood that, then maybe those with herpes wouldn’t have to deal with so much stigma.
Herpes is so much more common than many of us realize — which is why it’s ridiculous that the stigma exists. Why do we make people suffer through feeling ashamed or embarrassed when they have an infection that most people in the world have? That’s why it’s so crucial to open up the discussion around herpes and education each other. Because there’s no shame in having herpes — and no one should be made to feel otherwise.