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Dropping the H-Bomb on V-Day

Feb. 12, 2009
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I found out that I have genital herpes almost 2 years ago. I freaked out and didn't know quite how to handle it other than depression, guilt, drinking more than I should and a general WTF! So questions were asked… How do I date? How do I flirt and then drop the H-bomb on that special someone? How and when did I get this? I have to admit, before I educated myself about herpes, had someone told me they had it, I would have jumped out of the nearest window. Therefore, I assume everyone else would too, so it's hard to get close to men I meet and like, and that sucks. But I got the facts, and I only have a breakout maybe once every 6 months, tops, and that's without taking an anti-viral prescription. My question or suggestion is: Could you possibly educate the general public that having herpes isn't a death sentence, and that people without herpes CAN date people with herpes and not catch it.


H-Bomb Gal

Thanks for bringing up this topic, H-Bomb Gal. I agree with you that herpes simplex virus (HSV) is an infection that many people are irrationally afraid of. Although HIV is a virus that has far more serious consequences, I have met many people who are public about their HIV-positive status, and not one person who is open about having genital herpes.

Why the stigma? Herpes breakouts can be painful, but they're temporary. Herpes doesn't cause any serious long-term health consequences (although it can increase the risk of infection from other sexually transmitted infections and can be dangerous to infants if they are infected during birth by a mother who has genital herpes). In fact, the most difficult part of a herpes infection is often not the physical symptoms, but the emotional impact.

Like other viral STIs, HSV can't be cured. Plus, it involves icky sores. Plus, you get it through having sex, which in our culture is still considered somewhat dirty. These three things combined can lead to a lot of shame and stress when people find out they've contracted it-"Eeeeek! I'm diseased!" Many sex-education programs use graphic pictures and fear of infections like herpes to scare young people into avoiding sex, so it's no wonder that when some of us do get these infections, we feel terrible and are terrified of talking to others about it.

That's too bad, because so many of us have herpes-at least 20% of us, by some estimates, and most of us who are infected aren't aware of it. In the Shepherd Express annual sex survey that was released today, 8% of respondents say they have an STI, and the majority of these identify their STI as herpes.

If so many of us have HSV, why is it so hard to talk about? Why do we, as you say, want to jump out a window when the topic is brought up? Only 5% of Shepherd Express sex survey respondents who have an STI say that they've ever lied to a partner about it, which is great, but 40% of respondents say that it's not easy to talk to a new partner about STIs. We can all make that conversation easier by putting aside the social stigma of herpes and focusing on the facts.

H-Bomb Gal is right when she says that someone with herpes can have sex with a person without herpes without automatically transmitting the virus. An HSV-positive person is most likely to give the virus to someone else immediately before or during a herpes outbreak. Some people get an outbreak of sores when they're first infected, and then never again; others get outbreaks regularly. The most important thing is to avoid sexual contact of any kind when a person with herpes feels an outbreak coming on (often signaled by itching or tingling in the genital area). And I mean any kind-herpes can be transmitted by oral, anal and vaginal sex.

The herpes virus can also occasionally be present on the skin of someone who's infected without any lesions being present, and there's no way to tell when this is happening. For this reason, using condoms, dental dams or other latex barriers is important. Since condoms don't cover all the skin in the genital area, they don't provide 100% protection against herpes, which is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact rather than through shared body fluids. However, they greatly reduce the risk of infection.

Finally, if you have herpes and can afford the medication, taking daily suppressive therapy, like the drug valacyclovir, is your best bet to avoid outbreaks and avoid transmitting the virus to others. If you don't know about this drug, ask a doctor for more information; it truly can change the life of someone who has regular herpes outbreaks. Couples who avoid sexual contact during outbreaks, use condoms and/or take suppressive therapy greatly reduce the risk of passing herpes from one person to the other, and people can be in relationships for many years with one person HSV-positive and the other HSV-negative.

Herpes can be annoying, but it's not the end of the world. Every time you have sex with someone, you're taking a risk-a risk of STI transmission, a risk of emotional pain, sometimes a risk of pregnancy. Does that mean that you shouldn't have sex? Hell no. You also take a risk every time you drive a car, or even walk down the street, yet we do those things every day with barely a second thought. Don't let fear or shame determine your sexual decisions; get the facts and let those determine what kind of reasonable risks are acceptable to you in pursuit of an enjoyable sex life. My favorite place to get accurate information about herpes is theAmerican Social Health Association[www.ashastd.org]. I also loveSusie Bright's blog post about having herpes, which I've been referring people to since she published it a few years ago.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them tolaura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master's degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns theTool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee's East Side.


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