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In the UK, You Can Be Jailed for Giving Your Girlfriend Herpes

David Golding was charged with (and pled guilty to) grievous bodily harm (GBH), which usually means stabbing or beating the shit out of someone—not passing along a virus that roughly 25 percent of the UK’s sexually active population already has.

by Jack Gilbert
May 15 2014, 1:00pm

Someone with a cold sore, a result of the herpes virus. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

I can't see many people bettering David Golding's break-up story. After his then-girlfriend found out that he’d given her herpes, she dumped him, reported him to the police, and watched as he was jailed for 14 months for passing on the STI. The reason the sentencing was so severe is because Golding was charged with (and pled guilty to) grievous bodily harm (GBH), which usually means stabbing or beating the shit out of someone—not passing along a virus that roughly 25 percent of the UK’s sexually active population already has.

Unsurprisingly, sexual-health organizations weren’t very happy about the verdict, claiming it contributed to the wrongful stigmatization of what is really a pretty “trivial” condition. Those same organizations were just as outraged last week when the Court of Appeal rejected Golding’s appeal against his conviction. Lord Justice Treacy, sitting next to two other judges, said that even though Golding had acted “recklessly rather than deliberately” in giving his ex the virus, his original conviction was appropriate (though he did reduce his sentence to three months).

I called up Marian Nicholson, director of the Herpes Virus Association, to see how this latest verdict has gone down in the herpes world.

Marian Nicholson, director of the Herpes Virus Association

VICE: What do you think about the judge’s decision to reject David Golding’s appeal?
Marian Nicholson: I find it to be absolutely shocking.

Do you think the sentence itself was disproportionate to the offense of giving someone herpes?
I don't want to comment on the length of the sentence itself, because I don't know enough about proper sentences for GBH. But I don't believe this case was in the public interest; the judge even said that Golding didn't give his girlfriend the virus deliberately.

Does the judge's decision to reject Golding's appeal pose a threat to others in the future who might find themselves in a similar case? 
Of course. It's a disaster for common sense. The sexual-health doctors are all with us on that. We're conferring with all the top sexual-health doctors from an organization called BASHH [British Association for Sexual Health and HIV]; they're all horrified at the ridiculousness of basically taking someone to court for passing on a cold sore.

[Genital herpes] is incredibly common. It's almost impossible to prove who you got it from; anyone with a cold sore on their face doing oral sex could give it to a partner on the genitals. So, basically, they're saying that anyone with a cold sore on their face could end up in the dock.

Do you think the stigma attached to herpes might have had something to do with the original sentence and the rejection of the appeal?
Medically, a cold sore is incredibly unimportant. Up until the invention of antiviral drugs in the early 80s, there was no stigma associated with having a cold sore on any part on your body. To this day, any doctor who knows about the condition will tell you it's better to get it down below because, on your face, it's a much more serious condition. 

It's better to have genital herpes?
Yes, and this isn't good news when you've spent millions developing an antiviral drug. So the stigma was created by the drug companies while advertizing genital herpes treatment. I'll give you an example: A medical book for nurses printed in the 70s doesn't include the word herpes in the index. Once the drug companies created all the fuss, they started doing caesarean sections for mothers with genital herpes, and yet they allowed a mom with a facial cold sore to kiss her newborn baby.

Why hasn't it been destigmatized?
Because the condition is so medically unimportant that you don’t have a concerted effort to destigmatize it—such as the campaign we saw in the late 80s with HIV. It was important to destigmatize HIV because it kills, and you need to get people aware of it to treat it. Doctors can’t be asked to do something about destigmatizing a cold sore; they know it’s only a cold sore. Sadly, the judiciary are just as affected by the herpes stigma as any other layperson.

Do you think this case might make the demonization worse?
I don’t think it's going to get worse. We get people ringing us up on our helpline who are very concerned that they'll never have a partner again. And that’s been happening long before this case; it's been happening ever since the helpline was established in 1985. I don’t think it can get worse, because it’s already pretty bad.

What would you like to see happen to improve the situation?
We would like to see education. By the age of 25, seven out of ten people carry this virus, statistically. By the age of 35, it would be very hard to find a woman who does not have this virus. If you've had seven partners, statistically we would expect you to have simplex herpes type 2 [which produces most genital herpes]. The reason you don’t think you have it is that only one person in five gets it badly enough to be diagnosed. So [going by the Golding logic] this is basically going to put a fifth of the population in court. 

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