Did you know that around 1 in 5 adults have genital herpes in Australia? Yet, the sexually transmitted infection remains shrouded in stigma.
We chatted to one woman to share her personal experience, and her tips on how to manage conversations about genital herpes with sexual partners.
The good news? If you’re in the 1 in 5 adults, there’s no need to panic.
My experience with Genital Herpes (HSV-2)
There are probably a lot of you who read the title and already thought to yourself, “Ew,” and that is okay. Five years ago, I would have too.
But then I got genital herpes and I learnt more about it and came to realise that it is more common than I had realised.
There is this massive stigma around having herpes, especially genital herpes.
People with cold sores (HSV-1) often have jokes made about them for having herpes on their face, but it is not the same as the shame people are subjected to when someone says they have genital herpes (HSV-2). Watch any movie that they mention it in, and you’ll see they either mock or shame someone for having it or use it as an insult.
When I first started disclosing to people that I had herpes, I would be quick to add that it was because I got cheated on and he gave it to me. It made me feel better and it was like a, “it’s not my fault,” attitude.
Now, I own it.
I have herpes and so what? I, me, myself have herpes and it is something that I have had to come to terms with. It is not about how I got it, it is not a “poor you” situation and I should not have to justify why I have it.
I was 20 when I found out I had herpes. It may have been given to me by that guy who cheated on me, or it could have been dormant in my system for years until I had my first outbreak.
I avoided the doctors for months and had absolutely no idea what herpes was. I honestly thought my underwear was too tight and that my g-strings were giving me a sore.
When the doctor took a swab and told me she was pretty certain it was herpes I was shocked. I’m a researcher, so the first thing I did when I got home (apart from burst into tears) was research.
The first thing I read was that it was non-curable.
I thought to myself, “Fuck. I am doomed.”
I became an antisocial, sad human. I didn’t really interact with my friends. I told a few of them, but they didn’t understand what I was going through.
I never thought I would be writing about it for a blog post, or that I would share this information so openly with my thousands of followers.
I was extremely secretive about the diagnosis when it first happened. I didn’t tell many people and I was so ashamed and embarrassed.
It took me probably a year before I realised 1. I’m still a boss bitch, 2. I was still the same person I was before and 3. I have nothing to be ashamed of.
Now, I am as open as possible so that other people going through the same situation can feel like they have someone to talk to because I know how alone I felt, even when I was surrounded by people who loved me and wanted to be there to support me. I don’t think any of them realised how deeply upset I was.
Now, I find that a lot of the times I tell people they will say that they also have it, or they know someone close to them that has it. It makes me wish I started accepting and opening up about it sooner because it could have helped someone else and their suffering.
It is still such a taboo and secretive topic and I wish it wasn’t because there’s a lot of people suffering in silence.
The stigma that portrays people with herpes as promiscuous or dirty is wrong.
To put it into perspective, you could sleep with multiple people and get it, or you could sleep with one, or you could actually not have slept with anyone and only had oral sex performed on you and get it.
We are not people to be avoided. We are no less human. We are not something you should define as a “risk”.
If you take the proper precautions, like wearing a condom, avoiding sex when you have an outbreak and even using antiviral medication, you can significantly lower the chances of spreading it to your partner. If someone is a decent human being, they should accept you for who you are.
My tip if you have herpes and you’re ready to tell the person you’re talking to is to keep it light. Have a light conversation, casually bring it up and let them know they can ask you questions or google it if they need. You don’t want it to be a big deal, because at the end of the day it shouldn’t be.
Your actions can also affect how someone reacts. For example, if you sit them down, say you need to have a serious conversation, and then start crying they’re going to be like holy shit this is BAD. I mean, sometimes this approach happens and is unavoidable, but if you can do it lightly, I suggest it. Even shoot them a quick text and then they have time to ponder it.
And of course, never ever sleep with someone without first disclosing that you have genital herpes. Not only is it extremely immoral, it’s also actually illegal.
If you just found out you have herpes, or you're struggling with any shame or embarrassment around it, please know you're more than a diagnosis.
There's so much more to you and you're incredible. You are not alone. The stigma around STI's is what needs to change, not you.
Remember to own it, take as much time as you need to process, and then continue to live your best life.
Camille Brandon is a journalist, photographer, and body positive advocate. You can follow more of Millie’s journey here.
For more information on sexual transmitted infections and how you can protect yourself and others visit Better Health here.