This originally appeared on VICE NZ.
After Kate aced her STI test and switched to an IUD, she told her boyfriend they no longer needed to use condoms, thinking he'd be stoked. To her confusion, he was terrified. Then he told her he had herpes. "He was stressed," says Kate. "I'm pretty sure he thought that would be the end of the relationship."
His reaction was justified by the response this kind of news usually gets. A disease that is associated with promiscuity and sloppy hygiene isn't a fun one to tell your partner about. But herpes is really neither of those things; and in fact it's generally so minor, it's often ignored by the medical profession. Although incurable and infectious, mostly all it does is to cause cold sores on your mouth—typically HSV1—or your bits—HSV1 or 2— in a small proportion of the population. HSV1 is present in at least four out of five people and HSV2 is carried by one in five, although at least 80 percent of them won't know that they have it, according to herpes.org.nz. Not a big deal? Well, it isn't. Or at least, not medically.
The stigma of herpes is far worse than the physical reality.
It is a big deal socially. The stigma of herpes is far worse than the physical reality and many experts think that this is the worst part of the illness. When Jacob told his partner, her reaction was extreme. He says, "We had sex, like, three times over that whole year before we broke up. I seriously considered just being celibate." It's ironic, given how many of us have it, that we are likely stigmatising our own illness.
Tara Swadi, microbiologist and blogger at Get Learned, describes herpes as "so common, so not a big deal and so easy to look after", and yet, for people with herpes, one of their biggest burdens is the need to 'fess up to a potential new partner.
As with all STIs, disclosure should happen before your jiggly bits get anywhere near anyone else's, and often the attempt to hide it, as in Kate's case, can cause additional fallout in a relationship. For her, getting over the fact that her partner had hidden an illness was worse than the illness itself. But even with disclosed herpes, there are some additional problems. One, it's very difficult to protect against herpes, as condoms don't necessarily cover the affected areas; two, even areas that look healthy can shed skin cells that contain an active version of the virus 15 percent of the time; and three, you're likely to be disclosing an illness the other person either has or has come into contact with before. So why are we bothering?
A common STI check up covers a lot, but not herpes.
Some of us aren't bothering, but that's probably because we don't know what we've got. There are no significant health issues with the disease, so it isn't tested for unless there are visible symptoms. A common STI check up covers a lot, but not herpes. When I asked why herpes wasn't included in the STI check, I was advised basically to not poke a sleeping bear. If I requested a blood test to look for antibodies to HSV1 or HSV2, it would burden me with disclosure even if the virus was only present due to coldsores. My doctor was essentially telling me to preserve my plausible deniability.
When I asked Tara how she would feel if her partner told her they had herpes, she shrugged. "I mean, open weepy sores aren't particularly sexy, but it's not a big deal." Although a clear majority of us are infected with HSV1 or 2, only an unlucky five percent of the population know it. They know because they get symptoms, typically rash or open sores, just like cold sores, but on or around their genitals. The rest of us, well, we just live in blissful ignorance.
This blissful ignorance is something the medical community doesn't mind, but it isn't something that helps people who know they have herpes. The plausible deniability my doctor was keen to preserve is something Kate's boyfriend no longer has, and something Kate has now probably lost too. What they're left facing is other people's ignorance.
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