Fear of The Scarlet Letter “H”

Q. Logically, I know that if I can get a pimple/blemish on any other part of my body, then it stands to reason that my girl bits could also get what seems like a pimple. That doesn’t stop a small voice in me from freaking out, like, “OMG, I have some sort of horrible disease that I don’t know about,” even if every annual exam comes up A-OK. Put my mind at ease?

A. Ever hear the phrase, “You’ll know it when it happens?” About 95% of that phrase applies to this question, and what I think we are talking about, which is, herpes.

Herpes! Good for the children! Image copyright

Oh, herpes. Oh, really any STI. It’s enough to send a sane person over the edge, though for a couple of different reasons. The good news is, almost all STIs are treatable and manageable. This doesn’t mean we all need to race out and catch us a few, just for the experience, but it does mean that STIs are: 1. pretty common, and 2. not that big of a deal. I know some people will see this and start salivating at the bit as if I am encouraging everyone and their mom to go buckwild sans protection and the consequences won’t be a pain in the ass. The consequences can be a huge pain in the ass and each STI has its own particular type of hell. However, STIs are a part of many people’s life – way more than you think. Herpes alone is something that about 50 million people in the United States have. It’s completely possible that you have carried a strain of it in your lifetime and not known.

However, all information aside, people really have strong feelings about STIs. And sex. And shame. And shame around sex. The stigma of STIs causes a lot of folks to never seek treatment, for fears that range from being punished, to finding out something horrible (ignorance is bliss), to feeling like they did something wrong. I think herpes is especially stigmatized, not only for its name that translates into possibly one of the most insidious metaphors ever (herpes / ἕρπης , is Greek for “creeping”) but because herpes can ravage itself in a pretty gnarly way, leaving obvious signs that you have been doing something you should not be doing! Which tons of people do anyway, sometimes without getting herpes. It’s perceived as a cheater’s disease, a sign of promiscuity, and dirtiness. People like to act like herpes is the scarlet A, and I think they mostly do it because it freaks them out. The fact that it is usually a life-long disease, unlike most STIs where you can take an antibiotic and boom, gives people the idea that herpes is some sort of sexual death sentence. Which no lie, I won’t tell anyone to not be upset if they get a spanking case of serious genital herpes because it can be uncomfortable and can suck, both physically and emotionally. But it isn’t the end of the world and it isn’t the end of you or your sex life.

I think most people would be surprised to know that there are two types of herpes: Type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2). Type 1, often referred to as “oral herpes,” is what we commonly know as cold sores or fever blisters. Most people are actually born with this strain and I can’t tell you how many times I have seen good intentioned folks makes jabs at herpes with a large cold sore on their lip. The irony, she laughs. But, like most diseases, people respond differently. I myself was born with HSV-1, yet have only had one fever blister as a wee tot, and as my lovely Planned Parenthood gynecologist has suggested, most likely virally shedded it. Some folks get fever blisters if they are stressed or sick. Same with HSV-2. Some folks get one break out and then never again while some folks break out actively. Some folks may be asymptomatic but virally shed. It’s different.

So, okay, we have tap danced around your question a bit, so let’s bring it back. Do I think that even with your annual exams and potential pimple breakouts that you have herpes? Probably not. I mean, sure, you could be asymptomatic and I don’t know what tests are routine in your annual exam (most herpes tests are by request, not routine like HIV/HPV/pap smears). More than likely, your pubic hair might just be rubbing in your undies and agitating your skin, thus, resulting in a pimple. But poodle, remember this: I am not a doctor. I am a lady on the Internet giving out sex advice. If you are going to get annual checkups, good, that’s the best thing you can do. Are you using protection? Even better, that is what this lady likes to hear. While herpes is one of those viruses that, like almost all STIs, can be reduced by the use of a latex condom or dental dam, both forms of barrier protection are not 100% effective, since herpes is spread skin-to-skin. So if your current or future partner is in a particular sensitive stage of the virus, say, within months of getting herpes, your risk of also catching herpes is larger, due to the strength of the virus in your partner’s system. Over time, it does reduce in frequency and severity, but there are periods of viral shedding when the virus comes to the surface to “shed,” but is usually asymptomatic, yet still able to be transmitted. Anti-viral and topical medications cut this risk down even lower, and in the end, it is your choice on whether or not to sleep with someone who has openly told you that they have genital herpes (and if they haven’t, they aren’t being fair, even if they are asymptomatic. Stigma sucks hard, but so does not disclosing).

Check out this interview with our favorite Smizer, Tyra Banks, herpes advocate Michelle Landry, and Jackie Snow, a nurse practitioner on how the stigma of herpes is latent.

And until next time kids, have fun, play safe, and think about what you are saying before you crack a herpes joke. You never, never know.

Want to get tested for (HSV-1) and (HSV-2)? Check out your local Planned Parenthood for testing options!

Got a ques­tion to ask, sub­ject you’d like us to dis­cuss, or myth you’d like us to bust? Keep “˜em com­ing ! You can send us an anony­mous mes­sage via the Ask Us! fea­ture here. We love to see a full inbox of sexy sex and not so sexy sex questions.

One reply on “Fear of The Scarlet Letter “H””

Ha, I remember the 1st and only time I got a pimple down there. I freaked and made an appointment with the gyno. It didn’t even cross my mind that you sometimes get pimples there. Of course, more militant condom use would’ve helped out my mind at ease, but the pimple freak-out happened a couple years after breaking up with a cheating ex (I had general STD screening a couple times since then).

Something like that (the cheating + fear that you caught something) does make you have more sympathy for those facing the stigma of STDs (not that I’ve laughed at a herpes joke for a long time). Anyone can get it. You don’t have to be crazy promiscuous to contract an STD. And even if you are promiscuous, you don’t deserve to get an STD.

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