Press "Enter" to skip to content

Psychological impacts of the herpes stigma

For many people, receiving a positive diagnosis for Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) feels like the end of the world. Their dating and sex life suddenly feels impossible for fear of rejection when telling someone they carry the virus.

Although herpes is treatable and is very common among people in the United States, those who have contracted it are negatively impacted by the heavy stigma surrounding the virus.

HSV is a virus that causes oral or genital herpes, also known as HSV-1 and HSV-2. According to the American Sexual Health Association, one in eight people between the ages of 14–49 have genital herpes and one in two people of the same demographic have oral herpes.

HSV-1 (oral herpes) symptoms typically appear as sores and blisters around the mouth or tongue. HSV-2 (genital herpes) include sores and blisters around the genital area. Most people don’t experience symptoms because it is dormant in their bodies or have very mild outbreaks.

Although herpes is typically transmitted through contact with lesions or sores, it can also be contracted when there are no symptoms present from either sexual partner. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 90% of people between the age of 14-49 with HSV-2 are unaware of their status and have never received a diagnosis.

When people are not getting tested after having new sexual partners, the ability for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to spread becomes much more likely and make infections more common.

People have always been affected by herpes but it did not always have such a heavy stigma attached to it. It is rumored by many sources that the herpes stigma was created in the 1980s by the pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome Inc.

The company needed to create a demand for their HSV-calming drug, Zovirax, and therefore emphasized the social consequences of herpes through their advertisements in subtler ways. In one 1987 advertisement for the Burroughs Wellcome company, a man has his hand on a woman’s arm as they sit on the beach and words above the two read, “last year an outbreak of herpes made her miss the boat. This year, with the help of her doctor, she missed the outbreak instead.”

In August 1982, Time magazine published a cover titled: “Today’s Scarlet Letter: Herpes.”

Newspapers and magazines published articles that pushed herpes into public consciousnesses lined the pockets of Burroughs Wellcome Inc. while making herpes a household-name STD.

People who have herpes suffer from considerable shame, embarrassment and stigma from society by being labeled with stereotypes. The idea that people with herpes are promiscuous and disgusting can make people less likely to disclose their status to potential partners. This is also problematic because it leads to people unknowingly contracting the virus, which is also a violation of their consent.

To stop the stigma, it’s important to normalize getting tested for all STIs, especially if you are sexually active with a new partner. Slut-shaming also contributes to people not getting tested because they feel it is embarrassing to walk into a clinic and ask for a test due to the assumption that they may have multiple partners. Even if that was the case, it is normal to be a person who enjoys being sexually active.

Unlike chlamydia and gonorrhea, herpes doesn’t harm fertility or any internal organs. In general, people in the United States have an idea of what herpes is and may know someone who has it but it is not widely talked about unless it is the punchline of a joke. Society perpetuates the idea that people with STIs are immoral and dirty.

Pop culture can contribute to the stigma through television and movies when characters use STIs as a way to insult one another without acknowledging the stigma they are presenting. Even calling herpes a disease compares the illness to something much more serious and potentially life threatening.

It is definitely possible to have a healthy dating and sex life after being diagnosed with HSV. There is no cure but there are ways to not spread the virus through contraception and preventative medicines.

Being honest with a new partner is very important and explaining your knowledge could also put the topic at ease. It is not the end of the world, and should not be approached that way.