This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has a bit where she tells the audience that one in six people have genital herpes. Then, she asks those in the audience who have the virus to raise their hands. The time I saw her perform, a dead silence fell over the room as Silverman squinted her eyes and raised her hand over her brow in an effort to spot any brave souls. Although statistically improbable, apparently no one in the room had the virus, though it was far more likely that they didn't want to be a punchline at a crowded comedy show. And, if you've ever known a struggling actor who's dragged his or her ass to audition for a herpes commercial, you'll know that being the poster child for the virus is certainly not a sought after position.
That's slowly changing though.
According to ProjectAccept.org, a nonprofit that focuses on being a "voice and vehicle" for those affected by herpes and HPV, before medicine was available for herpes in the late 70s, standard medical textbooks made no mention of it. Stigma started at the tail-end of the 70s and early 80s, around the time when pharmaceutical companies started manufacturing and marketing antiviral drugs to prevent and help speed up recovery of an outbreak. In 1982, Time magazine published a cover story called "The New Scarlet Letter" ("Herpes, an incurable virus, threatens to undo the sexual revolution," was the tagline), which featured a woman with a shameful expression, in mid-conversation with a man, who was not happy to be there. All this seemed incredibly overblown for what is essentially an uncomfortable skin condition that lasts up to two weeks in the nether regions.
While a handful of high profile people have gone on the record as having herpes—like retired porn star Belladonna, actor Anne Heche, and VICE's Tracie Egan Morrissey—it's not exactly a condition that will elicit the same amount of sympathy as, say, Kim Kardashian's psoriasis, or Kate Middleton's eczema.
Recently, though, there's been a noticeable shift in social attitudes, thanks in large part to Ella Dawson, a gleeful 22-year-old who happily took on the role of being the herpes poster girl.
The New York–based social media assistant contracted the virus two years ago. While she experienced the predictable shame and shock—not to mention sore vagina—that comes with such a diagnosis, she's since learned to revel in the misfortune of contracting it. So far, it's worked favorably.
Last month, Dawson published a piece for Women's Health titled, " Why I love telling people I have herpes." It immediately went (excuse me) viral.
"I always knew there needed to be a conversation about herpes and I always suspected I might be one of the people who would lead the conversation," she says. "I always made it a long-term career goal to be the face of herpes. But I never expected the internet to lose its mind immediately."
While there have been predictable troll-y comments surrounding her confession, Dawson says reaction has been overwhelmingly heart-warming. She's even managed to attract a bunch of writing gigs out of it.
"It was clear that people were ready to have this conversation," she says. "There was this collective sigh of relief. I was overjoyed and excited to see how ready people are and how receptive people have been."
Dennis Williams, coordinator for Health Services Peer Education for Planned Parenthood in Toronto says often times, the most traumatic thing about contracting herpes is the diagnosis.
"It tends to be an emotional process for them," he says. "The stigma ends up having more of an impact on their life than the health impact of the actual infection."
Herpes is a tricky virus, which is why it's so easy to spread, but it's mostly harmless. There's herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), which can both be spread by touching, kissing, and skin-to-skin sexual contact between all the orifices. It's most contagious when there's an open, seeping sore, though it can be spread without any symptoms. Some people pick up the virus as children, through sharing drinks, or being kissed by a relative. Symptoms range for everyone, depending on things like stress levels and immune system, which is why some people carry the virus but never know it. Some people will experience sore blisters, while others won't feel a damn thing.
The times that the virus has the potential to be a health issue is when it's contracted during a pregnancy, which can affect gestation. There's also risk of transmitting the virus to the baby if there's an outbreak during birth, though those are rare circumstances.
Having herpes can also increase your risk of contracting HIV, if exposed to the virus. There's also been a study linking cervical cancer to genital herpes, but only among women who are also infected with human papillomavirus (HPV).
Williams says he aims to help those diagnosed with the virus understand that it's an incredibly common condition. That can be challenging to wrap your head around since there's still the pesky impression that it's a shameful thing to contract. He applauds Dawson for speaking out.
"It happens to so many people that it's kind of strange and unnecessary when people think they're alone when it happens to them," he says.
Dawson admits she's still sensitive about herpes humor, which is tough since it's often an easy go-to gag for comedians and sketch shows. She reminds herself that it's simply a result of stigma that's produced by society and not something she experiences daily with friends, co-workers, and family.
"You come to realize how so insignificant it is, in terms of the life you live. It stops being something that bothers you."
By being so frank about something that's not particularly sexy, Dawson hopes she and others can continue to change the way people come to terms with it.
"My goal would be for when people get diagnosed and Google herpes, instead of seeing terrifying WebMD results, they see people like me who've lived normal, awesome lives," she says.
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