The biggest perk of this job by far is making a difference in people’s lives and giving people the tools to reclaim their confidence and their sex lives. Occasionally, people who call us in a state of anxiety about telling a partner ring us back to let us know how it went (something we encourage, we love a happy ending) but for the first time yesterday I had a two-for-one.
A woman in her 30s (I don’t know her name but let’s call her Suzie) who I’d spoken to a few days before, rang me back to thank me. She wanted to tell me that she told her partner, and all had gone well. Not perfectly, but good enough for her to be feeling confident that he was the next big thing.
She’d taken a somewhat unconventional approach by telling him over the phone, while she was on holiday with her friend, “Polly”. Before calling, she’d confided in Polly that’d she’d been diagnosed with herpes – to which Polly replied that she too had it and had spoken to a nice chap called Cameron at the Herpes Viruses Association following her diagnosis! [How nice to hear this!] She went on to tell Suzie that this new boyfriend of hers had declared his love to her and said he didn’t care what she had.
Suzie’s success wasn’t quite the same perfect result as Polly’s but nevertheless, not too shabby. When she returned from holiday her own boyfriend initially avoided the subject, but he didn’t run a mile, and he seems keen to continue their relationship. He stayed the night at Suzie’s place, an honour she had not bestowed upon a man for years.
This was particularly lucky because I got the impression that Suzie still sees herself as being in a small minority and she was using that dreaded word ‘disclose’, which we discourage. There are nicer words to describe telling someone – tell, mention, reveal, unveil, etc.
This shared experience has strengthened the women’s friendship. Suzie was as surprised and delighted by this coincidence as I am humbled by it, so I felt obliged to share this story about continuing sex lives and remind you all just how common having genital herpes is.
The charity has several times had two members who live in the same street. We ask them if they would like to be put in touch with each other. The replies are always “No”! This is such a shame, as the story of Suzie and Jane demonstrates.
Since stupidity, division, snobbery and general unpleasantness continue to thrive among us humans, one might argue that stigma doesn’t need challenging. It fits very well into modern society sitting comfortably somewhere between babyishness and insecurity as a normal human behaviour.
Stigma is primarily defined as ‘A mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. It does not say if the mark of disgrace in question is in any way justified or rational.
The human condition
Perhaps one of the biggest flaws of the human condition is this silly need to separate ourselves from others so as to feel superior. It is something we may all have been guilty of at some point or another. It makes us feel better at the expense of others, and in the purest examples it provides comfort to those with little to feel proud about themselves.
Most are better than this
Most people are fundamentally decent and have no interest in power – at least not the sort of power which makes important decisions affecting millions of people. We generally seek to enjoy the company of other good people, but there is little material value in that and sadly, fundamentally decent people do not seem to be the ones in control of society’s current narrative. Stigma and division are closely related and were always there in basic form but have been amplified by the power of modern media to serve those who benefit from our separation and discontent.
Divide and rule
Divisions have always caused issues in society and there are plenty of examples – Christian v Muslim, black v white, remain v leave, pro vaccination v anti vaccination, – on and on it goes, sometimes obvious and serious, often innocuous and playful, but they are ingrained into us and mined to maximum effect. They stem from the primal security of belonging to a particular tribe but are no longer essential for our survival and seldom do we benefit from it in this age of globalisation. We are perpetually pitted against each other by our own kind and in most cases oblivious to this manipulation.
There IS much profit to be made from this ‘us and them’ mindset. It is promoted wherever you look, especially if you are looking in a newspaper or at a screen. The marketing team hired by Burroughs Welcome at the end of the 70s applied this knowledge to great effect when they created the stigma for herpes simplex. (See How herpes got its stigma)
The fact that sex outside of marriage has always been frowned upon, particularly in the UK, has only empowered the stigma around STIs in general and herpes simplex in particular.
Changing your perspective
So, what can we do about it? We can’t change society, but we can change how we view ourselves and rise above any temptation to conform to any negative ideas we have been spoon-fed. We can let go of any stigma and look down upon it, not allow it to look down upon us. In the case of herpes simplex and those of us who are aware that we have it, it is important to repeat these three facts until they eclipse the nonsense:
Firstly: accept that herpes simplex infection is one of the most common, if not THE most common, infection among human beings and that anyone who doesn’t have the virus by their 30’s, has been living a rather sedate life. Therefore ‘having herpes’ applies to almost everyone. This should not be confused with ‘having been diagnosed with herpes’. Only one in three who catches it notices that they have it. So, most of the people who stigmatise herpes have it too, they just haven’t noticed. It is a fact that you are a safer partner than all the undiagnosed people out there.
Secondly: the stigma is an invention not a fact – and a recent invention at that. We know it did not exist at all until the late 1970s. Herpes simplex is not considered anything to be ashamed of in most of Europe and the world. It is only countries with English as a first language that have adopted such an ignorant and misinformed view of herpes – which is just a medical word for the humble cold sore.
Thirdly: any shame you have felt as a result of the stigma was deliberately created by a bunch of (presumably) men, brainstorming around a conference table at the end of the 70s. One of them, Pedro Cuatrecasas, has written about it. Their morally abysmal creation was a huge success at your expense and will continue to be until the moment you decide that is no longer going to be the case.
You are normal
Be good to yourself and ditch the stigma, realise that you do not need to feel stigmatised. As we have said above, it is normal to have herpes simplex. That is a simple fact which is not promoted because it doesn’t make any money. Simple facts reassure and don’t cause people to believe they need to rush out and spend money on treatment.
Once you feel OK about yourself, you will not care what lesser beings say or think about it. Most of us don’t subscribe to the stigmatisation of skin colour or the stigmatisation of homosexuality – so why on earth would we give any credibility to the stigmatisation of a very common and medically unimportant skin condition?
Read more on the manufactured stigma of herpes in the links below.