Seven months after Ella Dawson says she was diagnosed with genital herpes, she remembers a young man at a college party offering her a sip of his beer. “Don’t worry,” she recalled him saying. “I don’t have herpes or anything.”
Dawson, 22, was just learning to shed the shame that came with her infection, which affects one in six Americans. She could already tell this sense of isolation was worse than any outbreak. So, she spoke up — and shared the tale in a Women’s Health essay, published this week:
‘That’s funny,’ I said, with as warm a smile as I could manage. ‘Yeah, that’s really funny. Because I have genital herpes.’ His face crumbled. Not because I grossed him out — I could practically see the wheels turning in his brain as he realized he’d made an ignorant joke at someone else’s expense. The guy started apologizing profusely.
Dawson, who graduated last year from Wesleyan University, didn’t take offense. Humor at the expense of people with STIs permeates popular culture, from Saturday Night Live’s Valtrex segment to Jennifer Lawrence casually joking about herpes.
But Dawson said she felt empowered talking bluntly about her affliction.
“I had seen in the flesh what a simple ‘I have herpes’ could do when said fearlessly, without shame,” she wrote. “Because when a real person — a woman you know and respect — casually mentions having herpes, it stops being a punchline and starts being someone’s reality.”
About 17 percent of people 14 to 49 in the U.S. have genital herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection, the CDC reports. There is enormous racial disparity, according to the most recent CDC data, with more than 40 percent of non-Hispanic black women diagnosed with the infection, compared to less than 20 percent of non-Hispanic white women. Condom use reduces but does not eliminate risk of infection. Skin-to-skin contact, even when no sores are present, can spread the virus.
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Herpes, the infection, is not new—but the stigma is. Project Accept, an advocacy group, asserts on its Web site: “[Herpes] was merely a cold sore in an unusual place until the 1970s.”
Blame an antiviral marketing campaign, which sprung up shortly after America’s free love era, said Dr. Peter Anthony Leone, medical director of the North Carolina HIV/STD Prevention and Control Branch.
“Herpes was seen as this marker of being promiscuous or bad or evil,” he said. “But unless you’re in a mutually monogamous relationship with someone who has never had sex, you’re at risk.”