Debunking Myths About Herpes
Sex can be one of the best parts of life, but it also comes with its own difficulties to navigate. The transmission of sexually transmitted infections and diseases, STIs is one of the biggest difficulties that can come up in your sex life.
One of the most common STIs is herpes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 13% of people ages 15-49 have an HSV-2, while an estimated 66% of people ages 0-49 have HSV-1. HSV–2 is almost exclusively transmitted sexually with outbreaks occurring around the genitals and anus. HSV–1 on the other hand is typically transmitted through oral to oral contact or oral to genitals.
Just like other STIs, information and beliefs around herpes are full of myths and misconceptions. It’s important to break down these myths, destigmatize herpes, and normalize conversations around reproductive health.
Herpes is Something to Be Ashamed About – False
One of the hardest things about having herpes is the shame that can come with it. Herpes and STIs in general are often the punchlines for many jokes. Terms like “I’m clean” can perpetuate these feelings as they imply that having an STI means you’re ‘dirty’.
The thing with herpes and many other STIs is that oftentimes the stigma is worse than reality. This means that although herpes isn’t life-threatening, and symptoms can be managed, the stigma around the virus creates psychological side effects and can impact mental well-being. These feelings are made worse by cultural and societal stigmas around sex in general.
Say it with me – herpes is nothing to be ashamed about!
Having Herpes Makes You A Slut – False
Because the stigma around herpes plays on cultural beliefs around sex, people often correlate having herpes with being promiscuous or ‘slutty’. First things first, as long as you feel empowered and are enjoying yourself, there’s nothing wrong with being promiscuous.
That being said, anyone can get herpes. Whether you’ve had sex with one person or one hundred people. Also, keep in mind that sex isn’t the only way that herpes can be transmitted – more on that later. Although these days many people are reclaiming the word “slut”, so if that’s you, then more power to you!
You Can Only Get Herpes From Sex – False
Before we get to the bottom of this one, let’s clear up the term ‘sex’. Sex means something different for different people, and you get to define sex for yourself. For some people sex means oral sex or manual stimulation, for others it includes anal, and for some, it means genital to genital contact and/or penetrative sex with a penis or sex toy.
As we mentioned earlier, HSV–1 is typically transmitted through oral contact. This means kissing and oral sex. It can also be contracted through sharing utensils, lip balm, or razors, although this is less common. Some people contracted HSV–1 as a child when a family member kissed them.
Many people with HSV–1 never experience outbreaks, although when they do this is commonly called a cold sore. It’s also possible to develop genital outbreaks from HSV–1 if you receive oral sex from someone with it.
HSV–2 is most commonly spread through oral or penetrative sex (anal, penis to the vagina). It can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact without penetration. In some cases, it can be spread to babies through vaginal birth if the gestational parent has an active (newer) infection.
Herpes Isn’t Treatable – True and False
Yes, it is true that once you contract herpes you have it for life. But that doesn’t mean that you’ll always have outbreaks. Oftentimes the first outbreak is the worst, but once your body develops protective antibodies, outbreaks typically stop or lessen in intensity. Many people never even experience an outbreak in the first place, which is one of the reasons why herpes is so common.
Although you can’t make herpes go away, you can treat and manage the symptoms. There are pharmaceutical medications as well as natural tools you can use to help keep herpes in check. Lifestyle changes that help to support your immune system are incredibly helpful in managing symptoms, this includes eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and managing stress levels.
Herpes Will Change Your Sex Life – True
There’s no way around it, a herpes diagnosis will most likely have some impact on your sex life. You may go through a period of not wanting to have sex, not knowing how to talk about your STI with partners or feeling shame around your body and diagnosis. These are normal feelings, but they don’t have to stop you from having an awesome sex life.
Many people who develop herpes report it actually improving their sex life in ways. Although they may need to go through an adjustment and healing period after they have to learn how to better communicate with their sexual partners and get more creative about what intimacy looks like for them. They also may be more scrutinous about who they have sex with, which can create opportunities for more sexual fulfillment and fewer letdowns.
Living with Herpes
We know how difficult it can be to get a herpes diagnosis, whether it’s HSV1 or HSV2. It’s normal to go through a period of low self-worth and uncertainty as you learn to navigate this new part of your sexual health. It can take time to adjust to living with herpes. If you feel like your diagnosis is affecting your mental health, it can help to see a mental health practitioner like a sex therapist.
Know that you did nothing wrong, you have nothing to be ashamed of, and you can (and will) still have an incredible sex life!
Natasha (she/her) is a full-spectrum doula and health+wellness copywriter. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, health, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more education and empowerment. You can connect with Natasha on IG @natasha.s.weiss.