Sex and Stigma8 August 2019
Content Warning: STIs, slut-shaming
You had a shit break up. You’d only been with two guys and thought your last boyfriend was the one, the only. Turns out he wasn’t.
You’re rejected, hurt, and so you try Tinder. You know you’re looking for confirmation in the wrong places. You do it anyway.
Your first casual sex experience. The back of a car. Classy. You never liked random hook ups in clubs and you’re frankly bemused by the whole experience. Sex had always been an intimate act; not anymore. The second time is better, you like him, you date a few weeks, you’re replaced. It gets easier each time.
Small bumps appear on your outer labia. Less than ingrown hairs or pimples. You’re itchy, but maybe it’s just the power of suggestion? You’re concerned. You google, a lot. You’ve always had a touch of hypochondria. You go to the doctor and he tells you the itching is only thrush and the bumps are nothing, they’ll go away.
A little unconvinced you show the nurse at work, she’s older and experienced. She recalls a time she was very stressed and had similar bumps. You relax a little. You had been incredibly stressed the last few weeks.
But then. Something stings when you pee. You look with a mirror, take a photo on your phone, zoom in. You’ve had cold sores since you were a child and you know there’s a genital equivalent. You know what it is.
A late night, expensive trip to the doctor, a different doctor this time. You wait for the test results but you know what they’ll say.
You already had a trip booked home to visit family and you tell your mum what’s happening. You’ve done more googling and you’re hoping for syphilis, that at least is curable. You both laugh at the irony of wanting syphilis. You both cry. You’ve cried a lot over the past few days.
The doctor calls you at work. Tells you the results. He’s calm, non-judgemental. He reminds you it’s just a skin disease, in the same family as chicken pox and shingles. Only located in the genital area because that skin is weaker, more easily infected. You repeat his words to yourself. They don’t really help.
You get on with your day. You have no choice. You call your mum, but there’s no surprise, only sympathy, you both knew what the results would be. You greet clients and answer phones, pretending you’re not cracking. Not panicking.
Continual research, on your phone under the desk at work, on the train home, late at night. You find an online chat room, looking for support but you only
find negativity. Members talk of wanting to die and the anger they feel toward the person who gave it to them. People complain about cold sores, another form of herpes. You’ve had cold sores for years and have never considered them something to be ashamed of. This is different. Constant jokes from comedians and even friends at the expense of those with herpes. You used to laugh too, not anymore.
Statistically you feel you deserve the infection. You’d been with seven people and one in seven have genital herpes. Only one in four of those get symptoms. The rest? They wander around in asymptomatic bliss. You’re jealous of them. You have responsibilities, decisions to make. Do you tell future partners? Or do you remain silent and hope that they won’t catch it? Act shocked if they receive a diagnosis. You don’t want to be rejected, the stigma is big.
You realise school sex ed lies. You’d used protection with every guy you’d been with. You hadn’t gone down without a condom. You think protection protects, but it doesn’t. Doesn’t stop skin rubbing on skin. Where would the pleasure be in that?
You learn that you could be infectious at any given time, not just during outbreaks. The virus lives deep in the nerve system but randomly rises to the surface of the skin without any symptoms. You’ll never know when the virus is shedding, when you could be infecting others. There’s no cure either. Your doctor says the best way to avoid outbreaks is not to stress and stay healthy. It’s idealistic advice for a full-time student with two part-time jobs.
You become paranoid about contracting other, incurable STIs. You’re going to be hypervigilant in your sexual encounters, protecting others from contracting herpes but more importantly ensuring you aren’t infected with anything else.
You try to look at things through a better perspective. You’d already been reading books on female genital mutilation, of survival stories of women in sexually restricted countries full of gender inequality. You think you’re lucky to have sexual freedom. Even if that comes with consequences.
Truth be told, you’re not sure who gave you herpes. You look back through your diary, calculating dates, weighing up the likelihood. There are three potential partners. You’re pretty sure you know who it was but you’re not certain.
But you know the men you slept with were decent. None would have purposefully given it to you. He too was a victim. You forgive him, whoever he was. You forgive yourself a little more each day too.
You still haven’t found a way to tell the man you were seeing when you were diagnosed. It’s been nearly six months. You don’t want to be responsible for shattering his world. For burdening him with the constant fear of infecting others. Maybe this will be the way you tell him. Maybe it won’t.