Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Stacy Sampson, DO
A Nice Follow-Up to Yesterday’s Post – STD Hater-Aid
This morning, I read a great article about eradicating STD stigma and the stigma associated with genital herpes specifically.
It’s a rather long article and you can find it in its entirety here, but for those of you with as short of an attention span as I have, I’ll share the highlights. I should emphasize her writing is eloquent and I was thoroughly impressed with the detail she includes – it’s an excellent read – again, I encourage reading the full article, but I will make sure to include her words as they were written so you get the depth.
The author wrote this for her grad program. Here is what she says:
This is About Genital Herpes
Dr. Anna Wald, a virologist at the University of Washington, told the New York Times, ‘Herpes has a stigma attached to it that even H.I.V. doesn’t have anymore.’…Mondo Guerra publicly announced his HIV positive status on Project Runway and there was an outpouring of tears, love, and empathy.
This would not be the case for anyone who openly revealed that they had genital herpes on TV. Can you even imagine anyone doing that? We assume that one would have to be crazy to share such a shameful, stigmatizing, and personally damaging secret.
Genital Herpes: Actually, it IS a joke.
Ever notice the only time we hear herpes mentioned in movies or on TV is when it’s the butt of a joke? Genital herpes is an easy target for humor because it’s not fatal and the people who suffer from this STI are not usually considered victims.
Unlike HIV/AIDS, genital herpes is a relatively mild condition that does not usually warrant the seriousness or sensitivity that society grants fatal illness. Instead, genital herpes is understood to be a punishment, or something you ‘bring upon yourself’. People with genital herpes aren’t thought of as victims; they’re thought of as sluts, monsters, lepers, or just stupid.
When we combine these factors, people with genital herpes are obvious subjects for ridicule.
So why are these jokes so popular? And why isn’t anyone saying anything about how miserable it must be for people with genital herpes to hear them and have to laugh along in order to avoid detection?
The jokes generally go unchecked since those who find them offensive or cruel are silenced by the fear of association with genital herpes, or the fear of being exposed as having genital herpes. Both outcomes carry the very real risks of shame, judgment, and rejection…. At the root of the ‘herpes humor’ phenomenon is the extreme stigmatization of genital herpes as a grotesque or disgusting indicator of promiscuity and infidelity.
More than 51 million Americans are cheaters and whores, or so we’re told
About 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 people in the U.S. have genital herpes. That means there are currently over 51 million Americans with genital herpes right this very second. That’s more people than there are Latino Americans (46.9 million) or African Americans (37.6 million).
What’s the likelihood all of those people are ‘sluts’, or ‘deserved’ to get herpes?
Celebrities often use their fame to help raise awareness for diseases or health-related causes. (Think: Michael J. Fox for Parkinson’s Disease.) When it comes to genital herpes, however, no celebrity would risk the stigma of association or exposure. As a result, the only time we hear about a celebrity having genital herpes is in the context of a scandalous rumor, bitter divorce, or lawsuit…. Then, wait. It’s not safe to be open about having genital herpes yet, you’re a liar and a cheater if you aren’t?
Seems like you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t here.
It’s almost as if we want people with herpes to wear a scarlet ‘H’ on their clothes so we know when to run away screaming.
This seems a little much for a disease that is, in actuality, a relatively mild condition with hardly any health complications that can be managed quite well with medication.
Herpes, apparently, makes you dirty and also a monster.
Considering the graphic and grotesque nature of genital herpes images on the internet, it isn’t difficult to explain why leprosy is a common metaphor for genital herpes….
Hansen’s Disease [leprosy] is probably the most stigmatized illness in the history of illness, and by associating it with genital herpes – one of the most stigmatized illnesses in contemporary western culture – the metaphor mutually harms sufferers of both herpes and leprosy, and sets back the goal of destigmatization for both diseases.
Another prevalent metaphor for genital herpes is the monster metaphor. It is often used to describe the virus itself, i.e., ‘the herpes monster’, or by people with genital herpes to describe themselves, i.e., ‘I am a monster.’ Implicit in the monster metaphor are feelings about genital herpes as a manifestation of evil. Susan Sontag wrote: ‘Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease (so enriched with meanings) is projected onto the world.’
As a result of this projection, people with genital herpes are sometimes considered predators or dangerous to the community at large.
Another common metaphor surrounding genital herpes, as with many other STIs, is the idea that someone infected with HSV is ‘dirty’ and someone who is not infected is ‘clean’. This metaphor is commonly used in reference to STIs and dates back to the nineteenth century. According to Sontag, ‘Specific diseases, such as cholera, as well as the state of being generally prone to illness, were thought to be caused by an ‘infected’ (or ‘foul’) atmosphere, effusions spontaneously generated from something unclean.’
Though we now understand that the cause of infection is due to viruses or bacteria rather than miasma, the dirty/clean metaphor is still pervasive. Today, the word ‘dirty’ also carries a sexual connotation, and for this reason, it is a popular metaphor for people who have genital herpes.
Do we really want to keep perpetuating these myths about people with herpes as dirty, scary monsters? Forever? Sure, maybe putting down those who have genital herpes is a way to make people without herpes feel better but the chances are high that those people will someday contract herpes and what then?
That’s when they – if not everybody – has to face the fact that after vehemently propagating and internalizing this stigma for years and years, they are now stuck inside a shitty social prison of their own making.
Who’s the monster now?
Talking bout the herp
There are two distinctive types of stories people tell about having herpes – those that internalize the horrible stigma surrounding the disease, and those that reject it.
The first type that internalize stigma (I am dirty, I am a whore, I am a monster) are pretty upsetting. When people believe all that negative stigma about people with herpes to be true about themselves, their experience sounds unbearable…. These stories are heartbreaking and make it sound like getting genital herpes is the end of the world. And isn’t that what we are all so afraid of? The good news is the majority of stories like this come from people who have been recently diagnosed with genital herpes.
Narratives from people who have had the virus for a number of years, however, are much more positive. Instead of internalizing all the stigmas and metaphors about herpes, they reject them. They tell their stories with the goal of helping others feel okay about having herpes.
Sounds to me like dealing with the stigma and shame of herpes is a lot worse than dealing with the disease itself.
Is it really worth the agony?
Mind over Stigma
Here are some things you can do:
- Add ‘people with STIs, including herpes’ to your mental list of groups that face discrimination (like GLBT folks, people with disabilities, women, Muslims, African Americans, Latino Americans, etc). Recognize their struggle and support them when you see discrimination happening.
- Take a stand against herpes or other STI jokes that would make someone who has it feel ashamed or uncomfortable. Step in and say, ‘Dude, that’s not funny. How would you feel?’
- Pay attention to language. Pay attention to metaphors like monster, leper, and dirty or clean. Try to stop using them yourself, and try to get your friends to stop as well.
- Pay attention to stereotypes. Correct people when they try to say that being a slut means you probably have herpes, or that people with herpes are liars and cheaters.
- Tell your story. If you have herpes, it may be too scary or too risky to come out about having herpes in public or to your friends and family. But you can share your story anonymously either online or using a pen name. Share your experience to help dispel the myths about herpes, and to let others know that they are not alone and that herpes is not the end of the world.
- If you’re in college, investigate your health center and on campus sex ed resources. Pay attention to how they talk about herpes and whether or not their approach is reinforcing or rejecting stigma. If you don’t like what you see, try to change it.
What did you think about the author’s take on stigma? Did this inspire you or change your opinion about people with STDs? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!