Sex Shame, Herpes Stigma

When was the last time you kissed someone new and they told you they had oral herpes or cold sores before the smooching began? If you had sex with someone who had herpes and they didn’t tell you, would you feel differently? Both locations are extremely sensitive and getting herpes on your face or your genitals can be really painful and have lasting implications for your sexual relationships and health. So why are face herpes considered pretty normal and genital herpes the thing of childhood jokes and a lot of adult fear? The answer lies in how we feel about sex and how we feel about sex includes a whole lot of shame and that shame means that we attribute a lot of negative feeling to anything that we can get through sex.

This isn’t to say that people who get cold sores don’t feel any discomfort or shame about it, I’m sure they do, especially if they’ve contracted those sores from sex. But having cold sores just doesn’t carry the same weight of stigma that having genital sores does and also doesn’t seem to have the same requirements in terms of disclosure.

We judge all those diseases and infection gotten through bumping naughty bits far more harshly than we do any infection or disease we’ve acquired ‘faultlessly’. And there’s the problem, when we have sex, we’re seen as having done something wrong so the bad that can come with having sex is judged and given moral weight in a way that getting the flu or a cold or even cancer isn’t.

So until our world starts seeing consensual sex as a pleasant pastime that provides us with a lot of health and emotional benefits, then we’ll continue to feel that those who’ve contracted an STI are somehow to blame rather than just having a bit of bad luck.

Shelley

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nadinethornhill on January 31, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    So until our world starts seeing consensual sex as a pleasant pastime that provides us with a lot of health and emotional benefits, then we’ll continue to feel that those who’ve contracted an STI are somehow to blame rather than just having a bit of bad luck.

    Well said, Shelley!

    Reply

  2. Posted by mllevagine on January 31, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Hey ST:

    This is an amazing post!

    Shu

    Reply

  3. Great post! My first oral herpes outbreak is longer ago than I can remember, but I distinctly remember having them in the classroom and on the playground. I called them cold sores, but it wasn’t long before some smart apple figures out they were herpes.

    I was ashamed of them before that. Nothing like having people recoil from you, or tell you that the big scabs covering half of your mouth are gross to make you feel even more uncomfortable in your already poor-fitting skin.

    But the taunting – “Megan haaa-as HERpes! Megan haaaa-as HERpes!” – was based solely on the fact that herpes were dirty because they had to do with sex. Even when we’re talking about face herpes, I think the shame still has to do with our fear of sex and pleasure.

    My 8-year-old’s response isn’t the one I’d make now: I told those boys I knew I had herpes, but that *my* herpes weren’t *those* herpes. I wish now I’d just told them to fuck off.

    Reply

  4. Great post. Here’s to us all talking about this virus a little more and in the process lessening its grip on humanity in time.

    Reply

  5. Posted by HS on March 14, 2012 at 9:05 pm

    I have had this crappy virus for over 25 years. I have to say that the shame and the rejection that I have experienced have taken a massive toll on my life. I know that my thinking is irrational and some days I think I should just give myself a kick in the pants and get over it, but I struggle every day. I am in my mid 40s and have not had any sexual relations for over 10 years. I am overwieght and do not have enought self esteem or self worth to lose the weight and I KNOW it is because of the herpes. Only my doctors, my best friend and her husband (and a the few partners that I have had) know about it. I can’t tell my family, I really don’t think they would understand and I think that they would be so ashamed of me. And really, what is the point.

    STD dating websites are a big joke – all the men want a physically perfect women. This is a sad state of affairs. I am successful in my career, have a financially secure life, good friends, many interests and I’m a very generous and giving person. I just hope that I’ll find someone to love me someday, who understands and accepts me with my “blemishes”.

    Reply

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