He takes another bite of his food.
“So I...uh.. got an internship in New York.”
“Cool. Sounds a lot better than being stuck in fucking Claremont studying for the MCATs. You know what I’ll be doing all summer?”
We are 20 year-old college juniors in California, and we have been dating for a four-month semester. (I mean, we’ve been off-and-on with some study abroad time in-between, but this time it’s officially been a whole semester).
“I guess we’re splitting for the summer, huh?” He didn’t believe in relationships before me, so I doubt he believes in long distance relationships.
“I assumed we were staying together.”
“Really? You want to stay together over the summer?” I had already prepared for the worst.
“Yeah,” he shrugs nonchalantly. “Why wouldn’t we?”
Well, that was easy.
I see my boyfriend from the train window. He’s handsome and barefoot and skating towards the Metrolink station, holding a flower he definitely ripped out of the ground. It’s been 7 weeks since we’ve seen each other, an eternity in first-love time.
We collapse in laughter, after sex. It couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes.
It has been two nights since we reunited, and I can’t sleep. I’ve had some terrible vaginal discomfort before, but this feels different. I’m not itchy, I’m tingly. But like so tingly, it’s itchy. Scratching my labia is futile, this itch feels like it goes three-inches deep, if that’s even possible. I can’t even exactly source the itch. It’s starting to feel like it’s spreading to my legs. This is so fucking uncomfortable.
I squirm my way through a restless night.
Warning: what follows next is not cute, and more than a little graphic.
My labia is sore, and I worry I’ve scratched too hard. I’ve had vaginal abrasions and yeast infections, and sometimes both at the same time, but this is so much more painful. I start noticing strange discharge every time I wipe. It’s clear, wet goo mingled with crusties. You know, kind of like the gunk you wipe off your eye when you have pink eye. I’m on my back with my legs open while my boyfriend inspects my vagina. He’s a future doctor.
“Whoa, they’re like - festering scabs.”
It hurts when I pee. It’s not the actual act of peeing that hurts, this isn’t a UTI. It hurts when urine hits any part of my labia - it stings like I’ve just poured rubbing alcohol on an open wound. I pat the area instead of wiping, because maybe they’re just cuts from rough sex. I cover the skin with petroleum jelly, because maybe I’m chafing. I wash my labia with soap and water whenever I can, because maybe it's a bacterial infection gone wrong, maybe it just needs to be cleaned.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it. I would rather believe that I could have anything, including an out-of-control bacterial infection, before I believe that I have genital herpes.
I start calling ex-lovers to try and track transmission of the virus, because that’s what you’re supposed to do with STDs, I guess. But the effort is futile. The patterns are too inconsistent, and not everyone who has herpes will show symptoms. My current partner shows no symptoms.
In explanation, a brief run-down of my sexual education:
At 9 years-old, my mom - a registered nurse and first-defense responder - shut me in a room by myself to watch an hour-long educational VHS on reproduction.
At 10 years-old, the 5th grade teachers at my elementary school talked to us about sex and periods. We separated into major groups by gender, and they took us into classrooms to have open discussions about any remaining questions we had. I asked if a condom could ever come off and get stuck in your vagina during sex. My teacher laughed a little, then proceeded to answer the question as best as she could.
At 11 years-old, someone crossed out the “ni” in organism in my science textbook. I asked my science teacher what an orgasm was in class. I remember that I really didn’t know at the time. She ignored my question.
At 12 or 13 years-old, I vaguely remember some sort of sex-ed. My friends remember having to watch a video of a live birth and some assembly about periods.
At 14 years-old, I take a semester of “Health” - a class all Los Angeles Unified School District (the second largest public school district in the nation) high school students are required to take in order to graduate. I only remember having to carry around a baby doll for a week, and on occasion, stuffing it into my locker.
At 18 years-old, my alma mater might have made us go to a sexual health assembly.
My point? My upbringing was ripe with sexual education opportunities, yet it mostly only reinforced the mechanics of sex, childbirth, and the fact that I get periods. None of the icky, in-between stuff. Definitely not the icky, in-between stuff I was dealing with now.
The Internet tells me I probably have genital herpes, so I visit an OB-GYN. She confirms the diagnosis in two seconds flat.
I’m still in denial. I have herpes? I’ve heard what other people say about other people who have herpes.
“Are you sure it’s herpes? How could this happen? I’ve had a stable boyfriend for 7 months.”
The gynecologist shrugs. “Maybe your boyfriend got a new girlfriend while you were away.”
I had never questioned his fidelity. How dare she make that assertion?
He’s at Planned Parenthood trying to get himself tested. They offer him the basic panel for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis.
“Does that include herpes?” he asks.
“That’s a very specific test, and to be completely honest not really worth it,” they answer.
“What do you mean? I want to know if I have it.”
“Look, let’s say we test for it. You find out you have it. Then what? There’s no cure for it. So many people have it that, chances are, you probably do have it. If you want to pay for the test, go for it, but there isn’t really a point if you’re not showing any symptoms. If you’re having flare ups, then it might be worth getting tested to find the exact cause of your mucosal ulcers. Otherwise, you should be fine with a basic panel.”
And that’s the end of the conversation.
I fail to clearly communicate that I have herpes and active outbreaks to my next partner. At some point in our early relationship, I may mumble something to him about “a herpes thing” from my last relationship. I stumble through a very quick explanation of how I got tested, and found out that I have Type 1 herpes, but not to worry, that it’s the same virus for cold sores, and a bunch of people have it, so it’s not a big deal. I didn’t want him to judge me. I was scared. And next thing you know, I was having my second genital herpes outbreak, and he was having his first.
“It’s okay,” he said to me. “I’m not a stranger to any of this. I know what it is.” He was very chill about the whole situation. But still, it’s not cool to transmit an outbreak to your partner.
To this day I still struggle with herpes stigma, and how to have the conversations around it. It may seem obvious that the partner I experienced an outbreak with is the person who transmitted it to me, but as we’ve learned about asymptomatic carriers, I could have had the virus before him. Herpes isn’t a game of tag, it isn’t directly traceable.
Since my initial outbreak five years ago, my herpes outbreaks have transitioned from genital to oral sores, with my last outbreak, a cold sore, occurring over two years ago. I usually mumble a warning to my partners to let them know that I am a virus carrier, but I truthfully don’t know how much to emphasize its severity, since it’s been years since my last outbreak. I don’t have all the answers to questions about herpes, but I’ve learned a whole lot of things that you should know too. For example:
1 in 6 people aged 14-49 have herpes
Not everyone shows symptoms
Condoms do not fully protect you from getting herpes (since outbreaks can occur in areas that are not covered by condoms).
Type 1 generally causes cold sores and Type 2 generally causes genital outbreaks, but the only difference between genital and oral herpes is the location of the outbreak (thanks, WebMD.)
There are many, many types of herpes. Type 1 and Type 2 are talked about the most because they have a mucosal presentation, but Type 3 is a little thing called chickenpox, and - - Type 4 is known as mono. The list goes on and on.
Want to know what the CDC says about prevention? “The only way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.”
If you are a sexually active individual, you have a chance of getting herpes. Period.
But we’re not going to stop having sex, so we need to start having real conversations about the things that afflict us, and our genitals. Don’t we want to have positive sexual experiences?
Stay informed. Be a courteous human being, and inform your partners of your relevant sexual history, especially if you still experience active outbreaks.
Writing: Priscilla Hsu
Photograph: Ailyn Robles
Tags: art, photography