Living and F@*king with an STI
I was 16 when I contracted genital herpes. I laid in my bathtub after going to the doctor, the tears pouring down as I fearfully awaited the test results. “Please God”, I said aloud, “please don’t let this be herpes. If it’s not, I promise I’ll stop being promiscuous and start believing in you (yikes!)”.
Sure enough, it was herpes. I barely knew what sex was and I was already living with an STI.
For years I felt completely disgusting and broken. Who will ever love me? It wasn’t having occasional bumps around my vagina that was even the issue – it was what it signified. It represented a culture of sexual shame – internalized patriarchal messages that I was sexually inferior. I viewed herpes as a punishment from God for not living a “pure” enough life. I told partners on a need to know basis, and there were times when I couldn’t bring myself to face the fear and shame in telling them and withheld.
I’ve lived and fucked with herpes for all of my adult life. Nowadays, I’ll out myself to roomfuls of people or that acquaintance who makes a “harmless” herpes joke. Even in sex positive circles I hear a lack of sensitivity and awareness around STIs. We ALL need to know how STIs can affect our lives. I’d like to invite each of us to bring STI awareness into the light and make a conscious effort to break down the stigma that so many of us deal with.
Some ways you can help support the movement of reducing STI stigma:
Don’t use the word “clean” to describe not having an STI. If you’re clean, then what does that make me? Instead, invite conversations around sexual health. For example, when you think there may be a possibility of sex with a potential partner (no, I don’t mean when you’re hot and heavy, clothes are off, and about to have genital stimulation), you could say something like “hey, before we take this any further, I’d like to have a sexual health conversation. I was last tested ____, and I tested negative for ___, I do have ____. As a precaution, I always use protection unless we have a conversation down the line. How about you?”
Don’t make STI jokes at another’s expense. Media, parties, school – just about everywhere you look you can find an STI joke. it’s no wonder why those of us with an STI stay quiet about it. Do you yourself make herpes jokes amongst friends? How does it actually serve you? Is there a way you’re deflecting your own sexual shame onto others? Consider that someone you care about may be cringing inside, unable to speak out.
When someone tells you they have an STI, listen. You have complete freedom to make decisions on whether or not you want to sexually engage with another human. You have the choice to act in ways that supports your own sexual health, and you can be empathetic either way. When someone tells you they have an STI, it may be a very vulnerable thing for them to bring up. Try not to automatically freak out – take a breath before responding. While it has been uncomfortable for me to have these conversations with lovers, it also quickly shows me a lot about them. The people who listen, show me empathy, and don’t jump to assumptions are the people I want to invite into my life – whether things end up becoming sexual or not.
Educate yourself. If you’re sexually active, assume you’re sleeping with people with an STI. About 80% of adults in the US have contracted an STI at some point in their life, and 1 in 6 adults in the US have genital herpes. How many people in your life do you know that have an STI? Would they tell you? Do you know your own STI status? Many people live with herpes and don’t even know they have it. STI tests typically don’t test for herpes unless you specifically ask for it. When I asked my doctor recently why that is she told me it’s because most people have herpes, and that false negatives and positives are common. The data on when and how herpes is transmitted is not completely clear, although it is most commonly spread when there is an outbreak. Become familiar with the risks you’re willing to take.
Being sexually active with herpes is really not a big deal. Presently, I’ll get an outbreak about once per year. If I was less aware of my body, it may even go unnoticed. My personal safety practice is to not be sexually active when I feel an outbreak coming on and until it has disappeared (the time you’re mostly likely to pass it on). Otherwise, I’ve had partners for years where we had unprotected sex and I did not pass the virus on to either of our knowledge.
Everyone’s experience of having herpes or another STI is different. While I would prefer that I didn’t have it, I no longer think that God gave me this as punishment. In fact, herpes has offered me the opportunity to be more in touch with my body, allowed me to quickly get real and vulnerable with people, and has given me the opportunity to be a voice for those who have had to deal with the shame in silence. Having the conversation has gotten much easier. In fact, it’s often no big deal. And yet, deep down still lives that little 16 year old girl, crying, “will you still love me?” I encourage you to be an ally in breaking down STI stigma! Confront the jokes. Have the conversations. Investigate your own sexual health. I promise, someone will appreciate it.
About the author: Lyndsey Lyons, MA, is a psychotherapist at the Love, Sex and Gender Center in Boulder, CO. She provides culturally sensitive, sex-positive therapy to couple’s and individuals. She graduated from Naropa University and holds an Master’s Degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology. Her Philosophy is that sex is a portal to some of the deepest parts of our soul. She does not believe sex therapy is an isolated service, but a big piece of the whole.