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I Have Herpes & I’m Zero Percent Ashamed

By February 18, 2020 Uncategorized

This is a story of sex, shame, getting dumped, and real love.

My first thought when I got my herpes diagnosis was, “Fuck, Brad’s gonna flip.” Brad was a boy I was seeing at the time, and although he’s pushing 50, the word “boy” definitely applies — as you’ll see when you read on.

My second thought, however, was, “Yay! I can finally work to destigmatize herpes!”

I realize this reaction is unusual, and I wish it wasn’t. When you read people’s personal accounts of how they dealt with this particular diagnosis, it’s too often a heartbreaking story of shame and secrecy, followed by the eventual realization that herpes is nothing to be ashamed of and life goes on.

My heart goes out to every single person who has had to go through that difficult emotional process. It’s why I’m so excited that I got herpes. I’ve been a very loud advocate for sex positivity and education for most of my adult life, so I’ve known for years that herpes is just a rash.

Let me say that again. Herpes is. Just. A rash.

It kills me that a stupid little rash, an absolute nothingburger of a minor medical condition, causes so much emotional trauma and shame, and I’ve wanted for years to help destigmatize it.

But, of course, if you don’t have herpes, no one takes you seriously when you tell other people it’s no big thing. I imagined people saying, “Easy for you to say it’s not a big deal — you don’t have it!”

Well, kids, I have it. And I’m here to tell you it’s really not a big deal. More on that later.

***

Before we get into some herpes-stigma-killing badassery, I’m going to share my diagnosis drama with you. I don’t want you to think I didn’t suffer at all over contracting herpes. I did — but it had nothing to do with shame, at least not my own.

Remember little boy Brad? I had been seeing him for about three months, and things were pretty awesome. I was on birth control at the time, and since Brad told me he had no other partners, and neither did my only other partner, my fiancé (I’m polyamorous), I had decided it was reasonably safe to become fluid bonded with both of them. My fiancé was out of town for an extended period of time, and Brad was my primary sexual partner.

And I was falling in love with him. We were having epic sex and lots of sleepovers. We’d laugh our heads off every time we hung out. He liked to take me on motorcycle rides and loved to hear me sing. We’d just gotten to the point where the word “love” had been uttered a few times, and we were holding hands in public.

Then, we both got mysteriously sick on the same day.

For me, it felt like a mild flu. I had swollen lymph nodes, body aches, and low energy. I had also been dealing with terrible insomnia for weeks and traveling a lot to visit my fiancé, so I figured it was all just catching up with me.

On the second day of this mystery illness, I texted Brad to let him know that I would’ve been trying to fuck him senseless that evening if I wasn’t sick. He was sick, too, he said. Except he had painful blisters in his mouth.

Oof. That sounded like herpes.

I told him as much and said I’d go get tested, just in case, and that’s when the blaming began.

“Is there any reason you can think of that you were exposed to a herpes virus?” he texted.

Oh wow, Brad. Coooool. So obviously, if it was herpes, it had to have come from me. Couldn’t possibly have come from him, a man who never uses condoms with any of his partners. (That was my first red flag, which I really shouldn’t have ignored. Don’t be like me, kids. If you start seeing someone who insists condoms ruin sex, run screaming in the other direction and warn everyone you know about them.)

I told him what I knew: both strains of the herpes virus are incredibly common, and there’s no real way to protect yourself from it. You can get it from kissing, from oral sex, and from sex even with condoms.

“Have you ever been diagnosed with herpes?” he asked.

As if I would fuck someone all summer and not tell them I had a rash that they could get. Just fucking insulting.

“I would’ve told you if I had, and we would’ve used protection. I can’t believe you would ask me that. Besides, it’s really and truly not a big deal, if that’s even what it is.”

Then he reveals his ex-wife of many years had genital herpes, in order to let me know that it is, in fact, a big deal.

Oh wow. Yeah. Obviously, it had to have come from me.

Needless to say, when the test results came back positive, Brad flipped out like a tiny angry baby. He slut-shamed me, calling me out for my “dangerous polyamorous lifestyle,” a lifestyle he’d admired and aspired to up until that point. He blamed me for the fact that he’d already given it to someone else, someone he never told me about, by going down on her with sores in his mouth. He told me I’d ruined his life and hers.

He wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone, and I never saw him again. He broke up with me by telling me to go fuck myself, and then he blocked me on social media.

Over a rash.

And I thought this man loved me.

Now, I’m not happy with his reaction, but I do understand where it came from. Brad thought his entire sex life was over. He was certain he could never have sex with any woman ever again and that his life as a sexual being was dead. And he blamed me for it.

“Go fuck yourself” one week after “I’m falling in love with you.”

This is what the overblown stigma around herpes does to people. It makes them insane. It makes them hate themselves. It causes deep shame and emotional trauma. It can destroy perfectly good relationships, and it can also prevent them from ever getting started.

It’s not worth any of this. Let me tell you why.

Your sex life is not over.

For most people, herpes is a minor inconvenience. Symptoms are usually mild and rarely dangerous. You can still have sex — even single person sex!

Before I got it, I slept with single people who disclosed to me that they had herpes in advance of the hook-up. It never bothered me—I loved that they were responsible enough to tell me and take measures to prevent spreading it to me. It’s not the end of your sex life, I promise.

And now, post-herpes-diagnosis, I’m still having dimension-skipping sex with my husband, who has never given two shits about my herpes status.

My first outbreak was the worst, which is usually the case. I haven’t had body aches or swollen lymph nodes since. The sores, when they finally appeared, were extremely small — so small that I could barely see them — and they itched about as much as a minor mosquito bite would. They lasted about as long as a mosquito bite, too: a little less than a week.

My subsequent outbreaks have been so mild that I have been confused as to whether or not I should start taking Valtrex, because I couldn’t tell if I was having an outbreak or if I’d just gone too long without a shower. I think I might be in the middle of an outbreak now, but I can’t tell for sure. I can’t see or feel any bumps. There’s just a strange tingling sometimes, which could be my imagination.

And that’s it. That’s been my experience. Brad’s reaction was the worst part of it, and nothing else has been more than an extremely minor inconvenience.

Herpes is potentially dangerous if you’re pregnant, but even then, serious issues are rare and usually only occur if you have your initial infection and first outbreak in the late stages of pregnancy. That puts your baby at risk for neonatal herpes, which is a serious condition that can cause damage to the nervous system and even death.

But again, this is incredibly rare — less than a tenth of a percent (0.1%) of babies born in the US have neonatal herpes, and something like a quarter of pregnant women have genital herpes, according to the American Sexual Health Association. If a pregnant woman has had herpes for a while before becoming pregnant, her body’s antibodies will usually protect the baby from contracting it, even if herpes is present in the birth canal during birth. There are also measures that doctors can take to reduce the chances even further, like putting the mother on a course of antiviral drugs in the late stages of pregnancy.

The only other danger is that herpes can increase your risk of contracting HIV, and if you already have HIV, the two viruses can make each other worse. Using condoms, especially if you’re single, have a partner with HIV, or have HIV yourself, is really, really important.

That’s where the dangers end.

Also, some really cool good news! There may actually be an upside to having herpes: bacterial resistance. By putting your immune system on alert, the presence of the herpes virus may actually protect you from bacterial infections. Mice that had herpes were able to fight off the literal plague.

There are two strains of herpes, but they are basically the same thing now.

Herpes simplex I is known commonly as “oral herpes,” and everyone knows that everyone has it — estimates range from 50–80% of all Americans. It’s so common that people aren’t afraid of it. There’s no stigma around cold sores.

But herpes simplex II, which is thought of as “genital herpes,” is camping out in the nerve endings of over 1 in 6 Americans ages 14–49. Nearly 20%. Wowza. And yet, people are terrified of it. Because it’s your genitals. Because it’s sex (cue: sinister music and clips of slasher films where only the virgin survives).

What most people don’t seem to know is that HSV-I (the “oral” one) can also cause genital herpes, and HSV-II can also cause oral herpes. In recent years, more and more cases of genital herpes have been found to be caused by HSV-I, and doctors are now saying the two strains are virtually interchangeable.

That means if you think cold sores are no big deal, but genital herpes is THE END OF THE FREAKING WORLD, thennnnn…you make no sense.

Most people either have no symptoms, or their symptoms are so mild they legit don’t notice them.

There are a ton of people out there carrying and spreading herpes who have no idea they have it, because they’ve never had a single symptom or had symptoms so mild they didn’t notice them.

It’s entirely possible that good ol’ Brad was carrying genital herpes asymptomatically, gave it to me, and then was reinfected orally after going down on me. Yes — it’s possible to not have symptoms in one location but to develop symptoms for the first time when you become infected in another location on your body.

It’s also possible that either one of us had been carrying the virus asymptomatically for weeks, months, or even years before having our first outbreak, which then infected the other one of us. Most people have their first outbreak within 2–20 days of infection, but in some cases, the virus lies dormant for a really long time before showing up.

Furthermore, even if you do have symptoms, they are often so mild that you don’t even notice them. I doubt I ever would’ve gotten tested for herpes if it wasn’t for Brad’s mouth-sores. I would’ve thought I just had a mildly infected ingrown hair and moved on with my life.

There are a ton of people who have herpes and have no idea, because it’s never been noticeable.

You can get herpes even if you use condoms religiously.

While condoms reduce the likelihood of spreading herpes, the sores often lie outside the areas that are covered by condoms, and all you need is skin-to-skin contact to contract it. Friction increases the risk of spreading it, and what’s sex without friction, amiright?

Also, even though lots of people in the sex-positive community have been trying to get people to use dental dams during oral sex for ages, have you ever even seen a dental dam? In real life? My guess is you haven’t. My guess is you don’t think barriers are necessary for oral sex.

And if you think barrier-less handjobs are the one safe sexual activity left to you, let me introduce you to my next point…

Both types of herpes can infect you literally anywhere, including your fingertips, mouth, eyes, and anywhere there is broken skin.

Yup!

You can get a herpetic whitlow, a delicious little herpes infection in your fingertip. This is actually way worse than genital or oral herpes as far as pain and discomfort go, but most people only get one outbreak of herpetic whitlow. It lasts a few days, and then it’s gone forever.

You can get herpes in your eyeballs. It acts kind of like conjunctivitis, better known as pink-eye, and it’s only caused by HSV-I — yeah, that’s right, the really, really common kind that gives people cold sores. It can cause serious issues if it gets into the middle layers of your cornea, but that’s pretty rare.

You can get it in your nose! You can get it literally anywhere on your body! And all you gotta do in order to spread either strain of herpes from one part of your body to another is touch a sore and then touch yourself in any place with broken skin or a moist hole.

I apologize so much for the phrase “moist hole.”

Herpes is sometimes contagious even when there are no visible sores.

The virus can also be contagious when there are no visible sores, so you actually cannot ever fully protect yourself from herpes unless you never touch another human being ever. And what’s the fun in that?

But what about the fact that I have to tell new partners I have herpes now? That BLOWS.

I realize that the idea of having to tell every potential sex partner that you have the most overly stigmatized STI out there is frightening and discouraging, and I’m going to be writing a piece soon about how to have the sexiest disclosure conversation ever with new partners. I was nervous about this, too, but for me, there’s a silver lining in the tricky disclosure convo: From now on, I will only fuck people who actually care for me and who are intelligent and educated enough to know that herpes is not a big deal.

No more Brads.

***

I’m not trying to scare you with all of this. I’m trying to show you that it makes zero sense to be afraid of this virus or to judge people who have it. It does not make you dirty. It’s just a virus that anyone can get, very easily. You’ve probably already been exposed to it, and there’s a good chance you have it and don’t know it.

Please, if you have herpes and feel ashamed, try to absorb the information in this article into your soul, and release that shame. You don’t need it or deserve it. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong.

But good luck getting a doctor to agree to test you for it without symptoms — doctors won’t usually test for HSV because, in addition to the fact that the tests for it are famously inaccurate, the stigma surrounding it is more damaging to people’s health than the virus itself.

In fact, when I asked to be tested for herpes even though I had no sores, I had to sit through several rounds of the doctor telling me it wasn’t worth it. I had to demand the test. Even after telling him one of my partners had painful sores in his mouth, the doctor still didn’t want to test me for herpes.

Please, if you have herpes and feel ashamed, try to absorb the information in this article into your soul, and release that shame. You don’t need it or deserve it. You’re not dirty, and you didn’t do anything wrong.

My fiancé and I are very happily married now, and I contracted herpes while we were still engaged. After what happened with Brad, I was frightened to tell him. But when I did, his first reaction was to ask if I was okay. He was full of concern for me. And when I asked if he wanted to use extra methods of protection from now on, he laughed and said, “Nah, I’ll just get it from you.”

That’s the attitude I’d like to see become the norm. Because herpes?

Pssssssh. It’s no big deal.

23 Comments

  • hank says:

    i wouldnt want to have herpes. you totally minimize something that many people feel is a big deal. i hope and pray you tell your future lovers in advance that you have been infected so they can make the decision for themselves if they want to be exposed to this virus

    • Leana says:

      Nobody wants herpes. You may have herpes and not know it. It is not included in the standard STI testing panel, you have to ask for it. You should ask for it to be added so you can have the information for yourself. You might even want to ask yourself, should I ask all my partners to be tested in addition to getting tested myself every time before I have sex with a new partner. That would be an educated way to handle it but it’s still not assurance. Try a bit of compassion for those that do. Learn more about STIs and share what you learn with others. Education is powerful.

    • Samia Mounts says:

      Hank, the whole point of this piece is to point out that even though many people feel it’s a big deal, it’s really not. That’s the nature of stigma. Stigma is not rational or justified. It’s a monster that feeds on baseless fears.

      If you read the whole article, you’ll see that I actually talk about how having the disclosure conversation with new potential partners is a huge silver lining for me. The act of telling someone I have a highly stigmatized STI will weed out the people who a) don’t care about me and b) aren’t educated about herpes and sexual health. I’ve already disclosed to several people, and haven’t been rejected by any of them.

      You would benefit from approaching this subject with more accurate information, logic, and rationality, and less emotional baggage.

  • Joey says:

    This is a very inspiring article. I believe you hit the nail on the head. I hope people that read this article walk away with a similar attitude that you have. Not everyone will be so accepting, but you are doing a great job explaining exactly what it is; Not a Big Deal.

  • Jeannine says:

    Excellent overview. Thank you! I’ll be sharing this others as well.

  • Merrie says:

    Thank you for the post. I also have genital herpes and when I found out I had a huge outbreak. It was the most painful experience of my life! I was totally flipped out. I take Valtrex every day because I do not want another outbreak EVER!! I also do not want to spread the virus when having a sexual relationship. I am looking forward to your next post about how to share your herpes virus story with others. It is very embarrassing having to tell someone you have herpes. I hate it. Most men feel safe having sex with me because I take Valtrex every day and always let them know I will never put them in a situation to have sex with me if I think I may be experiencing an outbreak. I feel safer taking Valtrex and avoiding any further outbreaks. I would like to know your opinion on this.

    Thanks,

    • Samia Mounts says:

      Hi Merrie! I recently started taking a daily suppressive dose of Valtrex myself. My outbreaks have been very mild but frequent, and I was sick of telling my husband he can’t go down on me for a couple of weeks out of every month. I’m glad it’s working for you and excited to see how it works out for me!! You are not alone, lovely.

  • Hilary says:

    Great article! I’m so sorry you had to suffer through Brad’s tantrum, but you clearly dodged a bullet there. Better to find out how shallow and petty he was early rather than late.

    I haven’t let herpes scare me away from dating anyone, and while I haven’t acquired it (yet) myself, I did get to go through a similar experience when I found I had genital warts the summer of 2019. Luckily for me, my partners were just as sensible as your fiancee was. We simply took my genitals off the menu while I went through a 4-month course of treatment with Imiquimod ointment , and the warts were gone by New Year’s Eve.

    Btw… I’m going to check out your podcast. It sounds similar to another podcast I enjoy (Conversations with People Who Hate Me), and also like the Street Epistemology YouTube channel that Anthony Magnabosco has.

    • Samia Mounts says:

      Thank you so much for the kind words! Would love to know what you think of the podcast. 🙂 And I’m so glad your experience dealing with genital warts revealed how loving and reasonable your partners are. 🙂

  • Roxy Ruse says:

    Thanks for being a positive voice of reason in a community that values and depends on open communication! Lets also stop using the words “clean” vs “dirty” which just reinforces the stigma behind and the shame it can create!! Much love!

    • Samia Mounts says:

      Amen! Are we “dirty” when we catch the flu, or any other infectious illness that ISN’T related to sex? No, never. That terminology is just a relic of our sex-negative cultural history, and we need to drop it once and for all.

  • Kdemarco says:

    It’s nice that you don’t feel badly about having herpes I don’t think anyone should.

    But I was infected by someone who knew that they had it and opted not to warn me or give me that informed choice when sleeping with him. He didn’t tell me when we married and he didn’t tell me when we had children. I was very lucky I did not have an outbreak when I was pregnant or when I was delivering our daughters, Since of course I didn’t know that my ex-husband had infected me.

    That being said I had the right to know that he had herpes and also had the right to either choose to continue my relationship with him or not. Truthfully, I would’ve chosen not to continue.

    But it’s rather late for that, I was told after 10 years of marriage and two children. And you know what, that really blows.

    I now have to tell every sexual partner I have that my ex-husband brought home the herpes virus to me and I do test positive for the antibody although I’ve had no breakouts.

    So Samia I’m glad that you feel it’s just a rash but for me it’s much more than that and I would’ve felt better having the right to make that choice about my life instead of having it made for me.

    • Samia Mounts says:

      I am SO sorry your ex did that to you. That is WRONG. You should absolutely have had a choice in the matter.

      I’m also happy that you have never had symptoms and that it didn’t threaten the health of your newborns in anyway. That’s something to be incredibly grateful for. 🙂

      Keep an eye out for my upcoming piece about how to make the disclosure conversation sexier and more comfortable for everyone involved, and thanks for reading and commenting.

  • Brittany says:

    Well said….and your information is accurate. Thanks for sharing!

  • Michael says:

    I loved your story. It did make me feel better about the fact that I do carry the virus and have since 1990.
    I have been married to the most wonderful woman I could ever find for the last 22 years and I do remember the day I had to tell her that I do in fact carry the rash. That day was not my most comfortable day. She said she was ok with the fact but made me promise to be careful and to let her know when I would start to notice a pain or an itch. I have kept my promise and as of yet she has showed no signs of being infected. As I stated in the beginning of my story, I am married to the most wonderful woman in the world.

    • Samia Mounts says:

      Oh Michael, I’m so happy for you! Your wife indeed sounds wonderful, and thank you for being responsible enough to disclose your status to her before getting intimate. You gave her the opportunity to show how much she loves you that day. 🙂

  • John Hennessee MD FACEP says:

    Great story. If you are in your later years of life (?over 40?) you either have herpes or you have been exposed to it throughout your life and already have the immunity. Many have cold sores as children and develop immunity for life. And many have a single outbreak of Herpes, and then have immunity for the life. Herpes on the buttocks is also very common, and can have it’s origin originally from genital herpes. Genital herpes then resides in the nerves of the sacral complex and can later surface on the buttocks, whose nerves also arise from the sacral complex. I attend many nudist resorts and lifestyle events and see buttock herpes often. A lot of people simply cover it with a spot bandaide…!!! Like you say…. it’s only a rash…!!! I will take a Valtrex if I feel the outbreak is worse than usual, but most times the ‘rash’ is gone in a few days, but Valtrex (or the others) will definitely make it go away much faster.
    John Hennessee MD …retired, but practiced emergency medicine for all my adult career…!!!!

    • John says:

      Back when I was a kid — also retired now — we all used to get something-pox — maybe it was chicken or cow or small — that was caused by one of the herpes viruses. Basically, we survived, but we have the virus dormant in our nerves for the rest of time. Our immune systems retain some resistance to new infection, but the virus in the nerves can come back in the form of a disease called shingles.

      I did get an attack of shingles on my arm back in 1997. It came from stress and working long hours. My primary doctor said that there’d be some immunity because of that, though he did have me take the two shingrex shots last year, just to be sure.

      I’ve never had genital herpes, but what should I be telling women before sex now?

      Thanks —

      — J.S.

      • Samia Mounts says:

        Any new partner you have would be immune to the virus that causes shingles IF they have had chickenpox or the chickenpox vaccine at any point in their lives, which almost everyone has. Only if they’ve never had either would they be susceptible to catching it from you, and then only if you were having an active outbreak.

        In this case, I don’t think you need to tell new partners anything, unless you are having an active shingles outbreak. If you do have an outbreak, ask them about their history with chickenpox, and if they’ve never had it or the vaccine, then you can protect them by not letting the affected area of your body touch them until the lesions are gone.

  • AustinJohn says:

    Great Article and glad you are opening up about it. I don’t have it but never know these days where it could come from. Just take the necessary precautions. Thanks for sharing.

  • Reena says:

    Thank you so much. You are so right when you say knowing is more damaging than the infection itself. I developed shingles(herpes) from the stress of finding out that I have herpes, I’ve had to go on antidepressants to help me deal with the anxiety of spreading the infection; thinking that I can contaminate someone just from a simple touch.
    Thank you for comforting,and validating me.

  • Troy-Don says:

    Great article, I am 50 and luckily don’t get the outbreaks as often as I once did. It is very comforting to know that I could have attained the virus from many places or may have had it dormant in me without an outbreak for years. I don’t have genital herpes and strangely enough, the sores that I get are always on the right side of my mouth, not even on my lips, sometimes on my cheek. I always get an outbreak if I allow myself to get overheated or severely stressed. It sucks because I have a stressful job and I love to exercise to reduce stress…? I have learned to manage my stress better now and I am more careful about drinking fluids to keep my core hydrated/cooled, but damn it to hell if I get stuck somewhere where the heater is on and I didn’t layer my attire that day. I have always thought that I got it through my very active sex life as a young man, still a possibility, but not worth beating yourself up about it. My biggest problem with my outbreaks are that they are on my face and I get so depressed and embarrassed because of my appearance. I know I sound ridiculous or narcissistic, especially when there are so many other people that are far more worse off. Thank you for making me feel easier about this affliction.

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