It’s time for me to be 100% comfortable with the truth. Only then will I be able to use this truth to help others.
I have herpes.
There! I said it. Something that I’ve been too afraid to say since I was diagnosed with the virus. It’s funny how my fear was never caused by the virus itself, but by the stigmas surrounding it.
“What would people think?” “No man would ever want to sleep with me if they knew.” Those were my initial thoughts when I found out I was carrying herpes in the summer of 2015.
After engaging in pretty rough sex, I woke up the next day feeling pain around my genitals. I dismissed it and assumed it was due to the friction and a fresh shave. But nonetheless, I made a trip to the clinic just to make sure it was nothing more.
While the nurse was taking swabs, she also dismissed the pain I was feeling and suggested it was just ingrown hairs, reassuring me that I had nothing to worry about. A few days later, I finally received a text with my results and was gutted to find out that I had contracted herpes.
At the time I had two regular sexual partners and decided to tell them as I was eager to know if they were carrying it as well. They both came back negative, and unsurprisingly, my contact with the two men slowly faded.
I was left alone and felt like complete and utter shit. Not to mention I was experiencing a herpes breakout every month, sometimes even two weeks and was too ashamed to tell anyone. I took it upon myself to do my own research to figure out exactly what herpes was and what I could do about it.
There are many strains of herpes, one of them being the chickenpox and shingles viruses. The ones that are usually passed through sexual transmission are Herpes Simplex type 1 and 2. HSV-1 typically occurs around the mouth but can be passed to the genital area via oral sex. HSV-2 on the other hand usually causes genital herpes. I am carrying type 2.
When it comes to the statistics, Project Accept have created an infographic which breaks it down perfectly. 90% of the entire world population carry at least one type of the Herpes Simplex Virus. Over 80% of those with HSV don’t experience symptoms and even when they do, it is so light that it goes unnoticed, which is why HSV is so widespread. Less than 20% of HSV carriers experience symptoms due to having weak immune systems. The amount of HSV carriers is also age-dependant; the higher the age bracket, the higher the prevalence of HSV due to having more time to be exposed to the virus.
Finding out this information left me with a burning question: why are there so many stigmas surrounding HSV when most of the population are carrying it, and don’t even know that they are? I realised that it was due to the sex education we received growing up – or more lack of – that contributed to the social stigmas. The taboos surrounding sex and promiscuity also plays a huge part. Sexually transmitted infections are viewed as ‘unclean’ only because they are contracted through sex. Herpes is as common as the common cold, yet both are perceived very differently.
While on a journey to understand HSV and its nature, I took it upon myself to research HIV/AIDS and was shocked to discover the current advancements being made in HIV prevention and treatment. Positive folk with the help of antiviral therapy live healthy, happy lives, give birth to healthy, happy children and their life expectancy has increased by ten years since the 1990s.
But like many, due to the stigmatisation, I had ignorantly assumed that HIV was a death sentence, and people who carried the virus were ones to stay far away from. It dawned on me that the stigmas surrounding sexually transmitted infections actually slow down prevention, and leave many people misinformed.
Awareness, open discussion and disclosure are the three things I believe society needs to break sexual health stigmas and prevent further spread of STIs. Awareness means that society, especially young people, are properly informed of the various STIs currently among us, how they affect us and the current treatments available, as well as ways to prevent them.
Open discussion means that people who have previously contracted an STI or who carry one that is incurable, can openly share their experiences without fear of judgement or shame. Doing so can help others to have a better understanding and a different perspective.
This then leads to disclosure. If stigmas are broken, many STI carriers can then feel comfortable to disclose to potential partners about their current sexual health status, instead of disguising the truth or giving up on sex entirely.
Through my story and experiences, I want to make this change possible, which is why I decided to break the stigma starting with myself, by being honest about my sexual health status.
I am not “unclean”. Nor am I “unhealthy” or “doomed”. And I refuse to be ashamed of who I am. If you are also carrying an incurable STI know that you are not alone, and never be afraid to live in your truth.
Written by Rukiat Ashawe