Look At Me — Once You Read This You'll See Me Completely Differently

Photo: Courtesy of the author
photo of author

If you stood me in front of a firing squad and told me that if I didn't reveal every sordid detail of my life you would order them to fire, well, you'd pretty much be wasting your time.

I have very few boundaries or filters regarding what I'm willing to share about my life. I'd be more than happy to sit down and tell you all you want to know over a glass of wine.

I mean, who cares, right? We're all human. We've all done stuff. Some good. Some not so good. Some kinky. Some kinky AF. Whatevs.

RELATED: The First Lifelong Gift My Husband Gave Me Was Herpes

I have nothing to hide and nothing to feel ashamed about. Except ...

The one thing I've felt deeply tormented with shame about for the last 25 years.

Which is herpes. Because I have it.

Yup. The naughty kind too. HSV-2. On the "genitals" and stuff. Well, not really on any other stuff. Just the genitals. My genitals. Sigh.

Here's the real truth: it's just stupid.

All of it. Feeling ashamed to have it. Feeling so disgusted by myself with it I haven't even typed the word again yet.

Feeling so furious when another person lets a herpes joke fly. When another dating profile explicitly states, "NO STDs!," as though I am trespassing on their lawn if I swipe right. When another friend tells me they found out someone they were dating has it and so they obviously stopped calling them back, because gross!

It's all so dumb.

It's a blister. A small, yes painful, but not remotely fatal blister. Not unlike the kind you get when wearing a new pair of Louboutins for the first time.

I personally get outbreaks about as often as I am currently able to buy myself a new pair of Louboutins — meaning basically never — so the virus chilling at the bottom of my spinal cord really shouldn't be anything more significant than the chickenpox I had when I was one-year-old.

Oh. Except that the chickenpox outbreak was on my arms and legs, and the herpes outbreaks are on my vulva. I forgot.

What I find fascinating (read: depressing, frustrating, upsetting, and hurtful), is that 90% — NINETY PERCENT! — of the U.S. population has been exposed to HSV-1, the non-slutty, oral version of the herpes virus. If you've ever had a cold sore on your lip, guess what! You have herpes too, my friend! We're like fraternal twins!

I don't have HSV-1 myself. As I mentioned above, I have HSV-2.

The reason I know this is part of a funny story that goes a little something like this ...

A few years ago I was introduced to a guy through a friend. He was attractive. Seemed smart. Interesting. So we dated a bit.

Before we first had sex I let him know I have herpes and asked if he had any questions and if he felt comfortable progressing. He was good to go.

A few weeks later the ghosting began. This could have been the typical recently-divorced-and-wanting-to-play-the-field-with-more-women-than-you type ghosting, but nope.

He messaged me to let me know he'd been having some kind of soreness on his penis and was concerned he may have caught herpes from me. My heart sank immediately because the last thing I want is to ever pass this on to someone. However, the dude was NOT nice about it.

I asked him to describe his symptoms to me. They didn't sound anything at all like herpes. I have two boys and know a little something about the penis, and it sounded a whole lot more like either a UTI or some other kind of irritation. I encouraged him to go see a doctor, of course, and he did.

Next thing I knew I received a curt message asking if I had HSV-1 or HSV-2. Umm, I was diagnosed in 1991. I was just over 18 years old, and I don't remember them saying anything but the word "herpes." I've always assumed it was HSV-2, though, because of location, location, location.

Turns out his doctor did a blood test for antibodies I didn't know they can do now, and he was diagnosed with HSV-1. Oh! Probably not from me then! Except, he was positive I was indeed the culprit in his penile tale of woe and insisted I get my own antibody levels checked.

I get it. It sounds like scary stuff (even though there's nothing to be scared of), so while the demand was made in a rather officious, highly NOT romantic tone, I called my beloved OB/GYN and asked if he could slide me a lab requisition to appease the man.

A few days later my doc called me back to say that:

A) I have HSV-2, and,

B) My antibody levels were so low I obviously hadn't had an outbreak in years at the minimum, which also meant that,

C) I couldn't have given the guy HSV-1, because it doesn't work that way, and therefore,

D) I should dump the dude on his self-righteous, accusatory ass.

There was no dumping to be done since we were no longer seeing each other by this point, but I did call to share the groovy news that it wasn't me.

Here's the kicker. The guy refused to believe it! Even though over the course of the conversation he told me that, why yes, he'd been getting cold sore outbreaks on his mouth since he was in high school.

Nothing like a little slut-shaming and blaming to make a guy feel better about himself, right?

This is just one story (my personal favorite tbh) of the way men have reacted negatively when I share the information that I have herpes.

Some simply break off communication. Some still want to have sex, but will never, ever consider going down on me. Some try valiantly to act like it doesn't bother them, but I still see them eye my lady pieces like there's a time bomb buried inside somewhere.

RELATED: Everything You Need To Know About Herpes, But Are Too Afraid To Ask

Lest you think I am here to hate on men, please know that is not the case. I've had male friends over the years who I've found out have herpes, and their stories about the way women react to them are even worse.

While the blisters are seriously no big whoop, the stigma of herpes is nothing less than suffocating.

I have heard far too many stories about women who've chosen to stay in abusive relationships because their abuser was the person they caught herpes from, and they believed no other man would want them. I've heard far too few stories of the same kind from men because although just as many of them experience it, they feel more shame and more fear talking about how it affects them emotionally.

Every time I've considered breaking up with a man, no matter how awful the relationship had turned, a little voice in my head would tap on my shoulder and remind me that if I have to start over, I have to go through the trauma of telling another man about it again. As bad as things may have been, that experience can be just as bad.

One guy I fell for hard in my 20's told me he thought he wanted to marry me ... until I told him I had herpes. He felt that if he married me, he would have to be comfortable accepting that at some point he would probably get it from me, and he just couldn't bear the thought of putting a ring on that.

When I broke up with a long-term boyfriend a few years ago, he sent me text messages screaming things along the lines of, "Thanks for the herpes, whore!!" No, he hadn't actually acquired herpes from me, but way to throw my biggest fear in my face! Bravo!

I truly do understand how frightening the idea of catching herpes or any other STI is. If I didn't have herpes myself, I can only imagine I would find myself taking a HUGE pause before deciding if I wanted to take things any farther, sexually or romantically, with a man who'd just told me he has it.

That's because sex education in the U.S. sucks, not because herpes is actually something to be scared of.

I'm not saying STIs are no biggie, and I'm not saying anyone should throw away their condoms or other forms of protection and have a STI-free-for-all.

I am saying that my herpes is the same as your cold sore. Except no one can see mine when I have it, so frankly, I'm much happier this way, and wouldn't ever want to swap.

I'm also saying that the only reason you make fun of people with herpes is that herpes is associated with sex.

It makes you giggle because the little part of you that finds herpes so disgusting and shameful is an immature, judgmental, ignorant child. And that child you are was taught from the moment you learned about sex that STIs are nasty, oozing, deadly diseases caught by the kind of promiscuous sluts and dishonorable men you must make sure not to end up like.

Our society felt sex outside of marriage was shameful and immoral, so what better way to stop it than scare the living daylights out of us all as regards STIs?

So the 18-year-old girl who catches HSV-1 from a tube of stolen Chapstick is kind of bummed, but the 18-year-old girl who caught it from the 18-year-old boy she loved and lost her virginity to is a dirty whore. Sure. That makes sense.

If you're a man or woman who has herpes, I feel you.

The queasy feeling in my stomach that settled in as I opened my computer to write this has now made itself a nice cozy nest and seems to be prepping some popcorn, which I suppose won't come to rest until this article is out there in the world and therefore out of my control.

I'm not the slightest bit excited to share with every living soul I know that this virus exists in me, but I also know that as ashamed of it as I feel, there is no justifiable reason for me to.

I'm writing this because I simply hope someone else who has felt this way reads it and now knows that at least one other person gets it.

I know you aren't dirty. I know it isn't a big deal. And I know it still sucks.

The stigma around herpes exists for the same reason most people are mean to anyone else — because they're scared of something bad happening to themselves, and they think if they can figure out who is to blame or why someone deserved what they got, they won't have to worry they will suffer the same way.

Well, guess what.

No one is to blame. Not me or the guy who I caught it from. Not any more than anyone is to blame when they catch or pass on the flu.

And I don't deserve it. Not for having sex, and not even for having unprotected sex. It wasn't smart and I don't recommend it — and I still don't deserve it any more than a smart-ass deserves to be hit or shot.

Maybe if I say that to myself enough times I'll finally start to believe it. Maybe then I'll even start expecting others to believe it as well. Or maybe at least I'll stop caring if they do.

RELATED: My Boyfriend Gave Me Herpes — And The Devastation Was Near-Crippling

I don't suffer from herpes. It is entirely meaningless in my daily existence. I suffer from the way we've been taught to feel ruined because of an evidentiary marker that proves I've had sex. Because I have antibodies that someone can test my blood for and say, "Aha! See! She's done 'it.'"

If you are suffering from the same issues, here's all I can really tell you and know with 100% certainty is true.

You didn't deserve it, and you aren't dirty.

And it still sucks.

Deputy Editor Arianna Jeret, MA/MSW, is a former family law mediator, divorce coach, and recognized expert on love and relationships. Her work has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo, MSN, Bustle, Parents, and more.