What do you recall about sexually transmitted diseases (now called infections or STIs) from your school days? For most people, the upshot was "use a condom and have as little sex as possible."
Did you do that? Did you go about your teenage years, 20s, and 30s thinking, "Whatever I do, I want to make sure I'm *not* getting laid!"
Did you have a conversation with your potential sexual partner about their entire sexual history before getting naked with them? Did you require physical copies of their recent STI test results? Or did you just wrap that dick and roll with it?
Do you know someone who has or has had a sexually transmitted infection? What did you think about that person? Did you judge them? Did you assume that stuff only happens to slutty people with poor decision-making skills?
Do you know which STIs are curable and which are not? Do you know the symptoms of them all? Do you know which ones are tested for in the standard set of tests if you request them from your doctor or a clinic? Or is your plan still just to use a condom and have as little sex as possible?
If you request STI tests from a clinic, they generally check for: HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, hepatitis B, and trichomoniasis.
You will not be tested for Hepatitis A or C without asking. You will not be tested for herpes (HSV) without asking. You will not be tested for the human papillomavirus (HPV), in that there isn't really an effective way to test for it.
Still excited about getting laid? Still feeling smug about your (presumed) clean bill of health compared to that one dude or chick who got the clap?
Let's talk about herpes (the herpes simplex virus or HSV). There are two kinds of herpes - HSV 1 and HSV 2. It's hard to get accurate numbers, but it's estimated that as much as 80% of the world's population has HSV 1. Most of them (you) have had it since early childhood and are largely asymptomatic. It's still possible to spread the virus, though, even when symptoms are not present.
16.2 % of the US population has HSV 2, again with 81% of those individuals unaware that they have it. Remember, no one tests for it unless you specifically ask for the test. I can also assure you from my own experience that if you ask for the test, your medical professional will look down at you and ask, "Are you sure? Because you know most people have it and it's not curable and it will likely just upset you to know even if you have no symptoms to treat."
HSV 1 is typically known as "cold sores" or "fever blisters" and not considered a sexually transmitted virus. It is possible, though, to transfer the virus from the mouth of an infected person to the genitals of an uninfected person through oral sex. The number of genital HSV 1 cases is on the rise, partly because more people are avoiding it in childhood so they are not immune once they become sexually active.
Because HSV 1 tends to focus at the top of the spinal column and therefore show up orally, if it "takes root" genitally, it doesn't manifest as intensely. It's also less likely to be spread genitally, mostly because the HSV 1 virus sheds far less often genitally (and remember, most people already have HSV 1 so you can't infect someone genitally who already has it orally).
Like most viruses, herpes is not curable. You can merely manage the symptoms and take measures to reduce outbreaks. Once your overly affectionate aunt infected you as a toddler, you're stuck with it. Anyone you kiss intimately could get HSV 1 from you. And if you engage in oral sex, you can give it to your partner genitally.
I bring all this up because I had my first genital HSV 1 outbreak last week. Let me tell you, it's not the way I would have chosen to spend spring break. I was sick for an entire week. I cried every day, for one reason or another. The first outbreak can bring flu-like symptoms. Plus there are blisters on your genitals that hurt a lot. And then there's the fear of not knowing if it's herpes (the test takes three days for results) and if so, which kind (1 or 2) until the results come back.
Will anyone ever touch me again? Will I have to wear a scarlet H on my chest? At one point I was lying on the couch *wishing* I had chlamydia because at least that's curable. At another point, I was lying in bed crying, thinking that I would take an HSV 2 diagnosis if it meant I would stop hurting immediately.
It was a hard week. It didn't have to be that way. The doctor at the urgent care clinic was horrible. I intend to go back either with a sternly worded letter or a baseball bat, but I'm not up for it yet. He told me how proud he was that he's had HSV 1 since a kid but his wife doesn't have it because he's been so careful. Which implies that I've been reckless. I still ball my fists up when I think of him. He also told me over the phone when I asked for my results that "he was right" as if that were any concern of mine versus my diagnosis.
Do you know if you have herpes? Have you been tested? What if an aunt or preschool classmate got smoochy with you and you never knew you had it? You could give it to your partner any moment now. You could be a virgin and still give your future partner a sexually transmitted virus. You're a walking time bomb!
What if you're single? Are you going to only date people who are HSV negative? Are you going to require they be tested and if they test positive (which may be a shock to them) you'll dump them? You're limiting your pool of potential mates to the 20% worldwide who don't have herpes? Or are you just wearing condoms for a while and hoping for the best? You can get HSV 1 or 2 even with condom use as the virus sheds across the entire genital area. There can be zero symptoms while shedding. Do you even know where to buy a dental dam?
Of greatest note, I was taken aback by the reactions of those I told, both before I had a specific diagnosis and after I officially had HSV 1. Some immediately questioned if I was having unprotected sex. Some said I could just change my plans to only date other people with HSV 2. As if that suddenly became my only dating compatibility factor, versus religion, ethics, sports allegiance, child-rearing philosophies, pet allergies, DUIs, felony records, etc. As long as we both have HSV 2, I'm sure we'll hit it off just fine. Some reminded me that since everyone has herpes in one form or another, I don't need to bring it up with potential partners (if there ever were to be one again).
And once I got back my official HSV 1 diagnosis? People seemed to be far less concerned about that. My pussy was ON FIRE for a week. Believe me, I was concerned. One said, "Oh, I'm HSV 1 positive too, I thought I told you." Another, "Yeah, but it's not *genital* herpes." Um, tell that to my inner labia, buddy.
So I'm here to say, do some homework on sexually transmitted infections. I recommend the CDC's website. Talk to your health professional about what tests you've had, and how often you can be tested through your insurance. Go ahead and get tested for herpes if you think you'll ever put your mouth or genitals on another human in the near future. It sounds cliché but knowledge really is power.
And please. Stop. Shaming. Sexually. Transmitted. Infections. Yes, people can practice safer sex. And it's good to be well-informed. And stuff still happens. You are as likely to be in a car accident as you are to get herpes but you don't see people wearing shameful hubcaps around their necks for the rest of their lives.
If you met someone romantically and they told you they had HSV 2, what would you do? End it? Ask them to take anti-viral medications? Use condoms indefinitely? Would you blow them off completely, knowing that they clearly didn't get infected with the virus on purpose and were probably no less careless than you have been, just a bit less lucky?
Lastly, if any of this was educational for you at all, please consider donating to Planned Parenthood. They are an amazing resource for any human with sex organs, particularly women. I get misty just thinking about it. I called them in a panic because, in addition to my HSV outbreak, plus a yeast infection, I developed bacteria vaginosis (BV). The delicate ecosystem of my lady garden was just trashed and I was in a lot of pain and discomfort. I called the local Planned Parenthood and the woman on the phone was kind, compassionate, and most importantly SUPER HELPFUL. I hung up feeling empowered, even though they couldn't see me that evening. I went to another urgent care clinic with the data I needed to get help immediately. Planned. Parenthood. Cares. About. Women.
I'm one of those 80% worldwide now who has HSV 1. I had a good run of luck to avoid it for the first 40 years of my life. I'm not really going to let it ruin the next 40 years.