Hi, I Have Herpes
Issue No. 1: Sex Ed
Words - Priscilla Hsu
Photography - Ailyn Robles
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 on and off with some study abroad time in between but this time it’s officially been a whole semester). He didn’t believe in relationships before me, so I doubt he believes in long distance relationships.
“I guess we’re splitting for the summer, huh?” I had already prepared for the worst.
“I assumed we were staying together.”
“Really?? You want to stay together over the summer?”
“Yeah.” He shrugs nonchalantly. “Why wouldn’t we?”
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 been more than 5 minutes.
It’s 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 3 inches deep, if that’s even possible. I can’t even exactly source the itch. It’s starting to feel like its spreading to my legs. I’m so fucking uncomfortable.
I squirm my way through a restless night.
What follows next is not cute and a little graphic. My labia is sore and I worry I scratched too hard. I’ve had vaginal abrasions and yeast infections and I think sometimes both at the same time but this is so much more painful. I just started noticing strange discharge every time I wipe. It’s clear, wet goo interspersed with crusties, kind of like the stuff you wipe off your eye when you have pink eye. I’m on my back with my legs open while he inspects my vagina. Future doctor, you know.
“Whoaa, they’re like festering scabs.”
It hurts when I pee. It’s not the actual act of peeing that hurts, not like 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 in case they are 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 its a bacterial infection gone wrong that just needs to be cleaned.
Let me repeat that in case you missed it. I basically think that I could have anything, including an out-of-control bacterial infection, over 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.
A 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 a 1 hour 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 (and 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 sort of 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 some sexual health assembly.
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.
The Internet tells me I probably have genital herpes so I’m at the ob-gyn. She confirms the diagnosis in about 2 seconds.
I’m still in denial. I have herpes? I’ve heard what other people say about other people with herpes.
“Are you sure it’s herpes? How could this happen? I’ve had a stable boyfriend for 7 months.”
The ob-gyn shrugs. “Maybe your boyfriend got a new girlfriend while you were away.”
I 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?”
“That’s a very specific test and to be completely honest not really worth it.”
“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 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 just a basic panel.”
I failed to clearly communicate that I had herpes and active outbreaks to my next partner. At some point in our early relationship, I may have mumbled something to him about my herpes thing from my last relationship. I think I stumbled through a very quick explanation of how I got tested and found out that I have herpes type 1 but not to worry that’s the same virus for cold sores and a bunch of people have it but it’s not a big deal. I didn’t want him to judge me. I was scared. And now I was having my second genital herpes outbreak and he was having his first.
“It’s okay,” he said to me. “My sister has had herpes since she was a baby. 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 seems 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 that is directly traceable.
Since my initial outbreak 5 years ago, my herpes outbreaks have transitioned from genital to oral sores, with my last outbreak (a cold sore) occurring over 2 years ago. I usually mumble some sort of 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 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. Because who doesn’t 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 (6 months or so seems like a good rule of thumb, but I don’t know).