What is sex positivity without a little talk on STIs?

This one is for anyone out there who has experienced (or thinks they might have experienced) HSV-2, better known as genital herpes.

Woof. Just reading those words can stir a lot of emotions and thoughts. Let’s take a pause there–emotions and thoughts. Now let’s switch it up, and put thoughts before emotions.

Because that’s actually kind of how it is. First, we have our automatic thoughts.

Gross. What kind of person even gets herpes? How careless.

Then comes the feelings. The disgust, the shame, the judgment.

If you’re the one with the herpes, this can be a heavy burden to bear. It can be isolating–not just because you cannot tell anyone about your deep, dark, dirty secret… but because when you’re in the midst of an outbreak, and your nether-regions are sore and itchy, and random nerves in different parts of your body become hypersensitized and then tender and then radiatingly painful… you hide it. You grin and bear it. You pretend nothing is wrong. If you voice a mild complaint, perhaps you’re thought of as a bit of a complainer (because who doesn’t have an occasional twinge?), so you pretend it’s nothing. After all, if you reveal what is happening, the consequences could be much worse.

Then there’s navigating the infection while in a sexual relationship. How do you tell your partner? If you’re already someone who has difficulty finding time to be sexually intimate with your partner(s), outbreaks such as these are certainly no help. While it is true that certain workarounds exist for use during an active outbreak (patches, barriers, etc.), these may not appeal to everyone and are not guaranteed to be enough to prevent transmission.

And then the question of seeking treatment! With a mild case, perhaps it is enough to hunker down for a few days, until the symptoms abate. For those with ongoing and intense sensitivity however, treatment can make a big difference in how long and how impactful the symptoms are. Discussing with a healthcare provider opens the door to further judgment, and submitting to a sample collection for testing purposes can be both painful and embarrassing.

What if we could approach it differently?

It starts with awareness.

Our automatic thoughts came from somewhere. They came from the societal narrative about sex and STIs. They came from an ableist culture, where you are the ideal creature (unless and until you are not, by way of disability, disfigurement or disease). This erases the nuance of reality: That even those of us who appear to be able-bodied have exceptions to that label. This is seen frequently with “invisible illnesses”–those which exist and require an individual to adapt to function in an ableist society, despite others’ ability to see the “illness” (e.g., dyslexia, arthritis).

If we accept that “purity” and “perfection” are social constructs, then we have a chance to evolve past this limited and oppressive way of thinking.

So where does that leave us?

The science.

I am not a medical specialist by any means. My understanding of this viral infection comes from what I’ve gleaned off of the Internet, primarily (something available to anyone reading this blog). Some possibly helpful places to start:

  • Myths about genital herpes
  • Moderately sciency info about how it interacts with our cells to stick around for life
  • Detailed fact sheet about HSV-1 (oral herpes) and HSV-2 (genital herpes) including treatment options

On that last note, as of this writing there is no cure yet. The good news is that due to the associated risks, researchers are pursuing one. Until then, we can choose to embrace this as an opportunity to radically accept the situation, and challenge the dysfunctional thinking (and feeling) around herpes.

Note: For those with severe cases, “radical acceptance” is easier said than done, if not a bit insensitive. Individuals who face significantly debilitating symptoms and life-threatening consequences of their infection are a subset of this population which I am not qualified to speak for, and so I offer acknowledgement of that here.

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

Grieve. It really is as simple as that.

Taking a leaf from Kubler-Ross’s well-known Stages of Grief (for the dying, not the bereaved–just going to nip that common misconception really quick here), the end goal is acceptance.

Before you roll your eyes (for those of you who are so over this model)–I hear you. So I’m not going to dwell on how you should make sure to take a pit stop and buy a souvenir at each stop along the way. It’s up to you which Grief Towns you want to visit, so long as you eventually wind up in acceptance, because that’s where the next-level work begins.

The meta-work, if you will.

Acceptance can actually be… exhausting. I’ve heard about “compassion fatigue” and “vulnerability hangovers”, well to that I’d like to add “acceptance exhaustion”.

It starts when you say, “Okay. I’ve got it.” (and then you actually say it–) “I’ve got herpes.”

You say it to yourself, or perhaps the first time you intentionally form the words, it’s to another person. There. It’s out there in the world. You did a thing. What’s the feeling associated with it? Relief? Maybe even a little pride? Great, hang onto that.

Tentatively, you go out into the world with that, and maybe a little curiosity for good measure. Perhaps at one point you wondered, what is this new thing happening to my body? Why does it do the silly (and painful) things that it does? And then maybe you did get on the Internet (incognito browser, of course) and you realized there are whole forums where other people who also have this are sharing their stories.

You decide to tell someone else. And then another person. Your story is taking shape, and each positive interaction builds those feelings of relief and pride, until one day maybe–just maybe–you reach liberation.

You have herpes. YOU HAVE HERPES!

Then suddenly, you have herpes, and you want to normalize it.

There’s no need for the receptionist at the doctor’s office to whisper about why you’re in for a visit, because you’ve come to terms with it. When the receptionist whispers about it, sure that’s for your privacy, but when other people do it, it’s because it’s shameful–right? So let’s change the narrative.

Becoming an empowering force for Herpes PR™ is all well and good, but at the end of the day, sometimes acceptance can feel like a suit of armor whose weight begins to bear down on us over time. We are still moving against the grain, and if we stop moving, we risk getting caught up by the inexorable flow of that dysfunctional societal message.

At the end of the day, our body and life took an unexpected turn that did not fit with the plans we laid out for ourselves. Each new discovery we make about our bodies can be added to the whole of our existence, like a badge to a Girl Scout vest, but unlike a badge, this one we can’t rip off and throw away. We can hide it inside the vest where we have some hope of controlling who sees it, but that’s about all.

The more I learn about beliefs and how difficult it can be to fully release old ones despite having subscribed to a more satisfying new set of beliefs, the more I understand that this is the crux of life. It is the tension between what is, and what could be. If we cannot repress the little voice that reminds us of that which is hurtful to us, we can at least choose to disregard it–and this is the work of acceptance.

Good luck.