Reconsidering Herpes

With the Sun in Scorpio, attention turns to themes of sex and sexuality (though on Planet Waves, these conversations have a home no matter what time of year it is). But one facet of sex and our sexual organs that people rarely want to talk about is the potential (and reality) of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Zoe Lignon

Zoe Lignon

One of my colleagues sent me this article by Zoe Ligon a while back: “What I decided to do when the guy I was dating told me he had herpes.” I’m featuring it this weekend because I’d like to hear people’s responses to her thought process.

I really appreciate Ligon’s measured, thoughtful way in which she considered the information a would-be partner revealed to her before they even met: that he has been living with (and treating) genital herpes since his teens. Ligon herself has oral herpes, and she comes to some interesting conclusions about their equivalence.

On the one hand, her educated, pragmatic approach is eye opening, empathetic and grounded. On the other hand, there may be an opposing argument to be made to some of her decisions, or to the way she frames them. Or, perhaps more accurately, I am left with more questions.

For example, Ligon asks, “We don’t make a big deal about cold sores, so why is the same type of sore such a big deal once it hits below the belt?” It’s an astute observation. One could also ask whether we should all be more concerned about cold sores (lord knows my mother was zealous in telling me not to share drinking cups with others), and how to keep each other healthy. Or is the stigma around our genitals and sex the bigger problem — one based in shame and religious morality, rather than in biological reality?

Is there a universal standard for the ethics around STI disclosure? For example, most people who’ve had five or more sexual partners have been exposed to herpes in their lives without knowing it. So if you know you have been exposed, but you do not know for sure if you’re infected, is it necessary to disclose your exposure? (It can take many weeks or months for antibodies to show up, so early testing is not necessarily useful.) Or does that decision come down to a question of how responsible you feel around the unknown — or with guilt, or denial, or fear?

Please read Ligon’s essay in full here — and then comment below.

— Amanda P.

5 thoughts on “Reconsidering Herpes

  1. Eric Francis

    OK so, herpes 1 usually is in the mouth and herpes 2 is usually genital herpes. From what I have read, herpes 2 does not like oral tissue. Herpes 1 is a little more amenable to genital tissue. Herpes 2 can be problematic. I mean really problematic; it’s more than cold sores. So in my herpes interview, I ask:

    — have you been exposed / do you know?
    — what was your primary episode like?
    — how often do you have recurrences?
    — what are they promoted by?
    — I listen for info about the person’s relationship to their situation

    From that, it’s possible to get a sense of one’s risk factors.

  2. DivaCarla Sanders

    Amanda, thanks for Reconsidering Herpes. It is so common that people have to be able to talk about it with a clear head. We need models, and Zoe is a pretty good model. So is one of the links I followed, an article about Ella Dawson, who brings up her herpes diagnosis in casual conversation, as a way of de-stigmatizing and educating. Both these women are sex educators, so that have developed some skills in thinking about sex.

    Zoe used the revelation of her potential sex partner to do research, and to decide how she felt from as many angles as possible. She could have also drawn a clear boundary of not having sex with someone with a known infection.

    She came to this conclusion: “Before I had sex with someone with genital herpes, I needed to accept the very real possibility that I would become infected — and I needed to decide that it would be okay. We don’t make a big deal about cold sores, so why is the same type of sore such a big deal once it hits below the belt?”

    She has a point. Gynecologists and educators I speak with refer to herpes as a skin rash with no known long term health effects for healthy adults. I think most of the stigma and shame is because genital herpes is connected to sex.

    Any woman who may decide to have children needs to also look up pregnancy, birth, and herpes. Herpes is a devastating infection for a newborn, and if active genital herpes is discovered during labor, the woman will have a caesarian delivery. Oral herpes is also dangerous for infants, so precautions are needed in cuddling, kissing and nursing a baby when herpes is active with parents and siblings.

    When I counsel someone suffering emotionally with herpes (the worst kind of suffering, as it is not usually a big deal physically) I emphasize how common it is, how they didn’t do anything wrong, and depending on their own story, help them reframe having herpes, and being able to talk about it and live with it easily.

    Shame can’t stand up to the light. Being able to talk to someone, and learn how to talk to partners, potential partners, or friends who may need some good advice is good medicine for self-acceptance.

    It’s possible that the incidence of herpes will slowly reverse when people can talk about sex, sexual health, and how to have sex in ways that reduce risk of transmitting anything: virus, bacteria, fungus, critters, or fertile gametes. It’s a similar conversation skill that every sexually active person must practice, and children should be learning these skills by middle school and all the way through high school and college.

    I am interested in Zoe’s conversation with her doctor about the ethics of telling partners she had been in contact with herpes. I agree with her conclusion. Yet shouldn’t she and all future partners be talking about herpes and other STIs anyway? It all has to be part of the conversation.

  3. Amanda Painter

    “Yet shouldn’t she and all future partners be talking about herpes and other STIs anyway? It all has to be part of the conversation.”

    That’s definitely where I stand, Carla. And I think Eric’s process of conversation is one way to go about it — then you listen between the lines, feel the energy, and I think in the end, it has to be a personal decision. But taking as detached a view of one’s own fear is key — but can only be done alongside some real research (as Zoe conducted). I also think if one is still feeling afraid after the research and the conversation, it’s worth doing some extra inner digging to trace the vector of that fear. But I don’t think anyone needs to be ashamed of having herpes any more that anyone should feel ashamed of feeling afraid or uncomfortable. The fear matrix around sex and disease can run very, very deep as far as I can tell.

  4. Eric Francis

    While we’re talking about STIs, I want to offer a public service announcement for sharing masturbation. It’s a space of daring emotional and psychic risk and witnessing and exposure, with plenty of physical and other sensory intensity, sans concern about STIs, pregnancy and some of the energetic material where penetration is involved. I think this is the sex that will get us out of the current sexual enigma.

Leave a Reply