I really like you, but I have to tell you something … I have herpes.
Astoundingly, 1 million people in the United States are living with genital herpes, and one in every six people between the ages of 19 and 49 have the infection. And that's just herpes. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), there are between 55 and 65 million people living in the United States with an incurable sexually transmitted infection (STI) - and these are only the cases that have been tested, documented and reported to the CDC.
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Even though STIs - especially genital herpes, or HSV-2 - are so prevalent, they still carry an enormous stigma. In fact, herpes ranks No.2 - only after HIV/AIDS - as the condition associated with the most stigma and self-consciousness, higher than obesity and disability.
According to popular culture, anyone with herpes, or "the herp,"must be promiscuous, or has fooled around with someone who is. They’re branded for life, and are assumed to have genitals that resemble hamburger meat. Like one character in 2009 comedy "The Hangover" says, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas - except for herpes; that shit’ll come back with ya."
But here's the truth: There are many people living with herpes. Living full, normal lives. That includes dating, having healthy long-term relationships and, yes, having sex.
Viruses, Bacteria and Parasites Don't Discriminate"One of the biggest misconceptions about STDs and STIs is that they only happen to a certain kind of person," Jenelle Marie, founder of The STD Project told me. "But viruses, bacteria and parasites don’t discriminate! We’re human. Our bodies are not infallible."
Marie, 29, has been living with genital herpes since she was 16. Now, after years of coming out to partners, friends and family members, she has started The STD Project, an online information resource and support network to share stories, and answer all the tough questions that arise when anyone is diagnosed with an STI.
"When I was diagnosed, my doctor basically said 'here is a prescription and here is the door,'" Marie said. "He didn’t give me resources or tell me about websites or tell me that millions of people are living with herpes and contract it every year. He didn’t tell me that it was manageable."
Many sexual health websites, such as Planned Parenthood, the CDC and even WebMD have information about STIs, how to get tested and how to reduce transmission, but few give recommendations on how to live your life if you're diagnosed with an STI, particularly if it's incurable. That leaves those who have been diagnosed to seek out the scant information that's available on their own - and they're often faced with more media that perpetuates stigma than valuable information on how to proceed.
Another major misconceptions about sexually transmitted infections is getting tested. A standard test looks for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia, but not Herpes. To be tested for HSV-2 - the virus that causes herpes - you have to either exhibit visible symptoms of an outbreak, or ask and pay extra for a specific test. This is the case with many other STIs as well. A standard pap smear only reveals one strain of HPV, and there is no test for men to tell whether or not they are carriers.
Unfortunately, what that means is that many people who get tested leave the clinic with the assumption that they're in clear. In reality, they haven't been tested for everything that they could have - or be at risk of passing on. (Get some tips on how to avoid infection in The Ultimate Guide to Safe Sex.)
Honey .... I Have Something to Tell YouAccording to a study by Dr. Anna Wald, a virologist at the University of Washington, only half of those infected with genital herpes divulge their status to regular partners. This drops to 20 percent for casual hook ups. The reality is that the more you communicate with sexual partners about your status, the safer they'll be.
"I don’t think you necessarily have to tell someone on the first date. I don’t say, 'Hi! I’m Jenelle. I have genital herpes. Want to get a coffee?’ But it definitely is important to tell them before you put them at risk," Marie said.
She also recommends arranging a casual date in a private setting to tell any potential partner about an STI. This should include giving them the necessary information to let them make an informed decision about whether they want to pursue a sexual relationship.
"I tell people the full story. I tell them when I contracted it, that I have genital herpes - I say the full word - then I also tell them what I know," Marie said.
"I give them some basic information about what it is, how you contract it and transmit it, what it does to your body, how I maintain it and manage it. Then I tell them that there is a lot more information online and I encourage them to do their own research," she said.
"Then I leave. It’s important to let someone process the information on their own."
Does an STI Mean No More Sex?According to a WebMD survey of 2,000 people - 25 percent of whom had herpes - most uninfected respondents said they would not be interested in pursuing a relationship with someone who had the disease. Even so, in practice, despite the risk, the stigma and the perpetual unpleasantness of the conversation, Marie says she has never been rejected because she carries the herpes virus.
"My ex-husband said, 'That’s it?! I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant with another guy’s baby!" Marie laughs.
"My current boyfriend said, 'That’s all you had to tell me? I thought you were going to tell me a horrible secret that you weren’t who you said you were."