The tears streaming down my face plopped onto the paper sheet covering my lap as the doctor calmly patted my back. “There, there honey, I know this seems terrible but it’s not so bad. So many people have herpes. Now you just need to wait for the test results but I’m sure they’ll confirm it, and then contact all of your sexual partners if you don’t know who you got it from.” I had gone to my OBGYN because I noticed one small, odd bump near my upper thigh and now I had an incurable, permanent, STI. It felt like someone had branded a scarlet H on my vagina. I would never fuck again. How could anyone want to be with me after the declaration of “hey, just so you know, I have herpes?”
Anyone can get a sexually transmitted virus, but nobody reacts to it like a Cornell woman relegated to eternal status as a pariah by the fates. If I can cram for a prelim you better fucking bet that I can read everything the CDC has published on “living with herpes” in a 24-hour span — and that’s exactly what I did. The first important thing I learned, dear reader, is that you all have it too. Not in a cute way of like, “oh I’m not alone a few people have this.” According to the World Health Organization, 67 percent of the population has HSV-1, and an additional 1 in 6 people have the second strain, HSV-2. If you’ve ever had a cold sore on your mouth? You’ve got the herps. A few small red bumps on your balls that hurt and couldn’t be explained? Give me an H! Give me an S! Give me a V! Never had any symptoms at all? You bet your ass you could still have it. Thousands of individuals carry the disease but never have a single outbreak.
Both strains originate from an extraordinarily similar virus, and both strains can be either oral or genital. The key difference: HSV-1 likes being oral more, and HSV-2 likes being genital more. So, if you have one of those strains in a place it “dislikes” you are less likely to have frequent outbreaks and tend to have lower rates of asymptomatic shedding. HSV-2 generally causes more outbreaks and shedding as well (which is probably why so many people have HSV-1; we all just don’t realize it).
So, you probably have herpes. Don’t believe me? According to the Center for Disease Control, the vast majority of individuals with herpes have never received a clinical diagnosis and don’t know that they have the disease. Why? Because there is no evidence that screening for HSV can improve health outcomes or symptoms, or reduce transmission of HSV. The potential harms of screening: which include labeling, anxiety and of course false positives, outweigh any minimal benefits of knowing that you have HSV. This is why traditional STD screenings only look for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and HIV (and if you have a cervix your doc should check for HPV on your pap smear). Moreover, while individuals who know they carry the disease do tend to follow the basic rules of not having intercourse or sexual contact when they have an outbreak, herpes’ good pal “asymptomatic shedding” does not give a fuck. That’s right — even with absolutely zero symptoms or outbreak you can still spread herpes. And given that so many individuals will never have symptoms, never be tested, but can carry the disease, you bet your ass that there are individuals who could pass it to you with absolutely no malicious intent or recognition that they have herpes.
I bet you’re thinking, “okay now I have to make sure I never get this; what can I do? “ First, make sure you’re hooking up with people who always disclose. If you’re really worried, this includes the question of, “have you ever had a cold sore on your mouth?” because THAT IS HERPES (seriously like even fucking Jessica Biel has it — Google it). Beyond that conversation? not much. I mean abstinence — including never kissing again — is your best bet, but that’s no fun. Condoms help only to a certain extent, given that transmission can happen from skin contact alone. If you have herpes, you can take medicine that prevents outbreaks and reduces asymptomatic shedding. This is particularly helpful for those with HSV-2. Also, at a certain point, you just might have to own that you might get it (or already have it). There are no negative health risks of herpes except in that it can cause complications during pregnancy, which, don’t worry, my mother looked into it immediately and confirmed that I would still be able to give birth naturally. It was her first question, because why worry about anything else but your potential grandchildren? The only other risk? If you have sex with someone who has HIV while having an outbreak there is a higher risk of HIV transmission — but if you have herpes you shouldn’t be having sex during an outbreak anyway.
I got a phone call from my OBGYN four days after our first meeting. My tests were negative. But honestly, if I have this same conversation again, I probably won’t cry. Odds are my reaction will be a: “that makes sense, no big deal.” Because it turns out the only thing that’s actually a big deal about herpes is the fact that we idiotically treat it like a huge fucking deal. It’s just not.
Honey Ryder is a student at Cornell University. Whoreoscopes appears monthly this semester.