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When Should I Tell Someone I Have Genital Herpes

The article below was originally published in the Washington Post. The below portion of which was featured in stuff.co.nz.

I thought it was worth sharing as my belief is that living with herpes shouldn't be such a taboo topic. Unfortunately the public perception is that people who have herpes, or even cold sores for that matter are akin to modern lepers.

Opening the dialogue about the topic helps bring awareness to it, and as such a better understanding about living with it. People should not be ostracized for having the herpes virus

Read about this one brave lady below.  

Ella Dawson, who lives in New York City, blogs about living with genital herpes. While herpes the infection is not new, the stigma is.

Courtesy of Ella Dawson

 

Ella Dawson, who lives in New York City, blogs about living with genital herpes. While herpes the infection is not new, the stigma is.

 

 

Seven months after Ella Dawson was diagnosed with genital herpes, she remembers a young man at a college party offering her a sip of his beer.

 

"Don't worry," she recalled him saying. "I don't have herpes or anything."

 

Dawson, 22, was just learning to shed the shame that came with her infection, which affects more than 30 per cent of sexually active Kiwis.

 

She could already tell this sense of isolation was worse than any outbreak. So, she spoke up - and shared the tale in an essay in Women's Health magazine titled Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes, published last week.

 

She wrote: "That's funny,' I said, with as warm a smile as I could manage. 'Yeah, that's really funny. Because I have genital herpes.' His face crumbled. Not because I grossed him out - I could practically see the wheels turning in his brain as he realised he'd made an ignorant joke at someone else's expense. The guy started apologising profusely.


"The more I saw that understanding dawn on someone's face, the less fear I felt. I wanted herpes to have a human face, and I wanted it to be mine."


Dawson, who graduated last year from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, says she did not take offence.

 

Humour at the expense of people with sexually transmitted infections permeates popular culture, from Jennifer Lawrence casually joking about herpes to Saturday Night Live's segment on Valtrex, a drug used to treat infections caused by the virus.

 

But Dawson, who lives in New York City, said she felt empowered talking bluntly about her affliction.

 

"I had seen in the flesh what a simple 'I have herpes' could do when said fearlessly, without shame," she wrote.

 

 

"Because when a real person - a woman you know and respect - casually mentions having herpes, it stops being a punchline and starts being someone's reality."

 

As many as one in three adults in New Zealand have the virus that causes genital herpes, and around 80 per cent of those infected with genital herpes don't know they have the virus according to The New Zealand Herpes Foundation. Condom use reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of infection. Skin-to-skin contact, even when no sores are present, can spread the virus.

 

Herpes, the infection, is not new - but the stigma is. Project Accept, an advocacy group, asserts on its website: "[Herpes] was merely a cold sore in an unusual place until the 1970s."

 

Blame an antiviral marketing campaign, which sprang up shortly after the US's free love era, said Peter Anthony Leone, medical director of the North Carolina HIV/STD Prevention and Control Branch.

 

"Herpes was seen as this marker of being promiscuous or bad or evil," he said. "But unless you're in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who has never had sex, you're at risk."

 

The stigma carries devastating consequences, he said, and obscures factual information about the virus. Patients often seek counselling to manage the guilt or humiliation - and they may have only one or two outbreaks over a lifetime.

 

A 2011 study in the Journal of Health Psychology found several survey respondents with STIs reported feeling like "less of a person".

 

A 38-year-old woman with genital herpes told researchers: "I am ashamed. I feel dirty, unclean."

Threads on web groups for people with incurable STIs sometimes address suicidal thoughts.

Dr Leone said that, while it's important to practise safe sex, it's equally important to know what genital herpes actually is: a skin condition managed by medicine that won't prevent someone from having sex again or starting a family.

 

"The way you remove stigma is by bringing something to light," he said. "We need a push coming at the federal level to talk about sex in terms of health and move away from the disease model. Sex should be seen as part of being an adult, a healthy thing you can do and just part of your routine healthcare."

 

Memories of early sex education intensify the indignity, Dawson told The Washington Post. She remembers scary slideshows of STI symptoms - and no instruction on how to cope if you develop them.

 

"My middle school sex ed experience was a lot like that scene from Mean Girls, when the PE teacher says, 'Don't have sex because you will get pregnant and die.' "

The Women's Health piece hit the internet last week.

 

"When you disclose having herpes, generally whomever you're disclosing to follows your lead," she writes. During those early conversations when I couldn't maintain eye contact and constantly apologised, I radiated insecurity and doubt. It made herpes unnecessarily terrifying for me and for my potential partner. Casually mentioning it in an unrelated conversation on a first date, as opposed to making it a big, uncomfortable, "I have something to tell you" reveal after a few dates, makes it a conversation topic instead of a problem. It gives my new boo time to process and do research, and we can discuss it in more detail later if we decide to become sexually involved."


Dawson, a social media assistant for Ted.com, said she had since received dozens of Facebook messages from friends and strangers. People she has known for years were coming to her now with their own STI confessions, she said.

 

She said she planned to keep blogging about dating with genital herpes to promote normality in the face of stigma.

 

She wrote on her blog recently that she interviewed a former boyfriend about what it's like to date someone with the infection. His response was: "I didn't see you as 'Ella with herpes'. I just saw you as 'Ella.' "