An Op-Ed about STD Stigma – Part 3

StigmaThis essay was submitted anonymously after the author participated in the STD Interviews. This is part 3 of a 3 part series.

Statistics help to show just how common STDs are.

According to the CDC, genital herpes is one of the most common STDs, and in the United States, about 1 in 5 people are infected. That is more than 50 million people. For every 5 people you see on the street, at the grocery store, or the gym, one of them is infected.

Of those infected, 85% of them do not know they are infected. That’s over 42 million people who don’t know they are carrying the virus. In fact, 60% of the people who are infected never show symptoms, but they can still transmit it to others while they are asymptomatic, and there’s no guarantee that the newly infected person will also be asymptomatic.

To make matters worse, standard STD checkups do not include testing for the herpes simplex virus (HSV1 and HSV2) unless requested.

How This Affects Me

I am one of those statistics. I contracted HSV2 a year ago from my boyfriend at the time.

From a personal standpoint, I can tell you that herpes does not define a person. It is merely a minor skin condition that may never show symptoms.

It is not gross.

Many people think it is one of the worst STDs you can get, because it is life-long. What people don’t understand is my life did not change after contracting the virus.

I have experienced heart-break that burns 10 times worse than any herpes outbreak. I can think of a pretty long list of pains and inconveniences that top herpes, by a long-shot.

Stigma is Worse than the Infection

What affects me most, though, are the negative attitudes and comments about herpes I experience, almost on a daily basis. I do not suffer from my herpes infection. I suffer from the stigma surrounding a faulty assumption of what herpes is and how people contract it.

Shortly after I received my diagnosis, I felt depressed, that I was disgusting, and no one would ever want to date me again.

I felt repulsive.

The stigma was always in the back of my mind, and anytime I thought about my future and getting married, I’d say to myself, ‘That’s never going to happen. Who would ever date someone or even think about reproducing with someone infected with herpes?’ I finally regained confidence and realized that there are people out there, despite the awful reputation herpes carries, who will love me for me.

I speak for the millions of other people who also have the virus when I say how much it hurts to listen to the ignorant assumptions surrounding STDs. I can tell you from experience how degrading it feels when someone talks down about certain diseases, especially when they don’t know anything about the disease.

People should never have to feel that guilt and hopelessness that I felt when I found out I was infected.

Eradicating Stigma

The only way to stop the stigma is by talking about STDs.

Once people understand the reality of sexually transmitted diseases and the stigma is diminished, we can slow down the infection rate. So many people face guilt and shame after contracting an STD, and they are more apt to not be honest with their future sexual partners for fear of rejection.

We need to make sexual health common conversation.

Every time a negative assumption is made, a misconception, a crude joke, or an ignorant comment is made, we need to educate. We need to let the person know that STDs have no bearing on a person’s character, and there are millions of people who have had sex with only one person and have still gotten a disease.

People have to think before calling someone a slut because they have an STD. Sexually transmitted diseases should not be taken lightly or laughed about, because you never know who is listening. Not all people who suffer from the stigma regain their confidence. Many suffer from severe depression, and some commit suicide.

That’s why we should work together, not tear each other down.

Remind yourself that if you are having sex, you are just as likely to become infected as anyone else.  And of course, get tested.

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This essay was submitted anonymously after the author participated in the STD Interviews. This is part 1 of a 3 part series. The author is 20 years old and a full time student at Northwestern Michigan College. Her intended major is Philosophy, with her primary interest being Metaphysics – she hopes to transfer to the University of Notre Dame. Aside from philosophy, another one of her passions is the importance of raw food-ism and holistic healing. Her ultimate goals are to teach Philosophy to college students and be able to live an abundant, organic lifestyle. 

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How did this story affect you? What do think about the stigma surrounding STDs and those who have them? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  1. Rocky says

    Just in regard to HSV being life long, this fact doesn’t make it unique or “worse” by any standard. ALL virus’ are life long. Your body produces anti bodies to the virus that surround it, and stop it from latching onto a cell and injecting its RNA to replicate. Like a baseball mitt (the anti-body) wraps around a baseball (the virus), the base ball cant make contact with a cell, it is physically prevented from doing so by the anti-body. But the anti-bodies can only do their job if the virus is out and about and all virus’ become latent, (non-active). Remember chicken pox? U still have it, every cold and flu you’ve ever had? you still have it. Warts? You still have them. Your body has just produced enough anti-bodies to each of these that they are a non issue “cured” if you will, although its not technically correct. HSV is almost identical to all other virus’, but with one important difference, it remains latent within your nerve ganglia, hidden from patrolling anti-bodies. But rest easy, as time goes by, and you experience outbreaks, and thus produce anti-bodies, eventually you have enough of these herpes hunters that as soon as HSV leaves its hideout, it is snapped up and locked away, thus people generally experience fewer and even no outbreaks as time goes on. And don’t stress about it hiding away, all virus’ end up hiding in your spinal cord and have the potential to re-emerge, for instance, later in life you may get shingles – this is chicken pox come back to say hello. HSV has been living with us and in us since way back in the day, its super common and not very unique, thus the stigma around it is not justified in the slightest.

    • Jenelle Marie says

      Hi Rocky –

      I totally agree; the stigma associated with HSV is a bit absurd. Granted, HSV is still transmittable to others, unlike some viruses when they are no longer active or our immune systems have combated them and produced antibodies, but it’s so incredibly common. That’s what makes some of the fear, misconceptions, and irrational reactions disconcerting, as most folks are unaware just how likely it is that they know someone with herpes, or that they have it themselves.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!