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Misplaced acne, bedbugs and stigmas

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OCTOBER 15, 2013

Ah, sexually transmitted infections. The modern scarlet letter. “Stay away!” we cry. Particularly if it’s herpes. Oh, religious deity, forbid it be herpes.

For many, STIs exist on an intangible parallel plane. This or that promiscuous so-and-so might have had it coming, but we’d like to think we’re far removed from that plane of existence. STIs are seen as “dirty,” a blight upon whoever might have them. We dread joining their ranks.

In truth, however, STIs are as ubiquitous as bedbugs in New York. And like bedbugs, STIs are often more discomfiting than necessarily nefarious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly all sexually active adults will contract some strain of HPV at some point, but the body magics away most HPV infections.

This unfortunately isn’t quite the case with herpes, the second-most-common medically incurable STI. One in six people in the United States — 50 million people, y’all — have genital herpes, or HSV-2, and somewhere between 60 and 80 percent have oral herpes, or HSV-1, also called canker sores. Although there is no cure for either strain, both can be treated and their symptoms vastly ameliorated. And for the more notorious HSV-2, besides the occasional flare-up — which can lie dormant for years, in any case — there doesn’t seem to be any larger health issues. No complications with the female reproductive tract, no internal damage, no cancer.

Despite HSV-2’s commonness and relative harmlessness, it is still surrounded by social stigma second only to HIV, according to a 2007 Harris Interactive Poll. Not to cast HIV as some sort of extreme (modern medicine can help the HIV-positive live long lives full of salacious sex if they like), but herpes? C’mon. It’s like slightly misplaced acne.

Let’s start by asking you, the reader: Would you call a relationship off if your potential or current partner told you he or she had herpes? In the Harris poll, most respondents without HSV-2 said they would either avoid partners with herpes or end things with their partner if they were told he or she had herpes. That’s indiscriminately voting one out of every sixth potential mate out for something that doesn’t cause any problems and that doesn’t need to be passed on if you practice safer sex. For groups with one herpes-positive partner and one not, paying attention to breakouts and always using condoms and/or antiviral medications can cut your rate transmission down to 1 to 2 percent per year of regular sex — pretty minuscule, if you ask me.

The most alarming statistic in my eyes is that an estimated 80 percent of people with herpes don’t even know they have it. Yeah, we’ve talked about how herpes isn’t that bad. But the larger issue behind this stat — besides not possessing the ability to be open with your partner or practicing safer sex — is the fact that these people probably aren’t getting tested for other entirely curable — but more dangerous — STIs such as chlamydia, trichomoniasis, gonorrhea and syphilis, either. This convenient forgetfulness or ignorance about our own susceptibility to STIs could potentially be what damns us. We sexually active folk are likely all exposed to STIs at some point in time, so why do we evade the issue?

Chlamydia, trich, gonorrhea (the “clap”) and syphilis are all bacterial, so you can be rid of them for good with treatment. Left alone, however, they can have devastating effects in the long run, although they might not manifest any symptoms in the short run. Chlamydia — the most commonly reported STI — and gonorrhea can cause infertility if left untreated. Scary syphilis, if not caught early on, can cause damage to the brain, heart and nervous system and possibly even lead to death.

If you’re sexually active, whatever sex you identify as, the CDC recommend getting tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV once a year. The Tang Center covers an annual checkup for chlamydia, the clap, HIV and Pap smears (the last recommended to be administered every three years for women above the age of 21). Other STIs, such as trich, syphilis and herpes, aren’t generally tested for unless you feel you have been exposed to them or display symptoms, but you can ask for these screenings at either the Tang Center or Planned Parenthood.

Stigma won’t go down without a fight, unfortunately, but perhaps talking about it and dispelling falsehoods will help combat it. Hopefully with more openness and knowledge will come more testing, acceptance, treatment and discussion. It’s better to play it safe and get routinely checked, so if necessary, you can plan ahead or get treated accordingly — but remember, it’s not an end-all if you contract something. Life and sex go on. A tour guide and actor at Kink.com once told a classmate of mine about the first thing a colleague told him when he discovered he had herpes: “Welcome to the club.” You won’t be alone.

Vi Nguyen writes the weekly Sex on Tuesday column. You can contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @yonictonic.

APRIL 17, 2015