Getting real about herpes

One in four has it. And it shouldn't be a relationship death sentence.

A few weeks ago, a website called Str8Media caused quite the stir on a local and national level after it published statistics by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention which listed the top 15 cities with the worst herpes rates in the country. So which city, you ask, was sitting pretty at No. 1 with as high as a 40 percent infection rate? You guessed it: Atlanta. But before you call your last lay a lying slut, know this: It was a bogus statistic. That's right, we checked with the CDC. You're in the clear.

Or are you?

According to the real CDC, one in six adults has herpes simplex virus type 2, otherwise known as genital herpes, and one in four has some type of herpes (genital or oral). That means the next time you're out with your group of friends, it's probable that at least one of you has it. Of course, this isn't new information. But if I didn't know any better, I'd think it was the Abstinence Police employing a scare tactic to make us all born-again virgins. Unfortunately, these are real stats.

It's terrifying, I realize, to hear those numbers, to think you could be plagued with the modern, invisible Scarlet Letter of sorts. After all, what happens the next time your friends crack an STD joke? Should you laugh? Does silence give your secret away? Should it even be a secret? Should you tell your friends? What about that person you just started dating? You're going to have to have sex eventually, right?

Before you start freaking out, take a deep breath. Relax. Everything is going to be OK. It's not one in four people who has herpes, it's actually three out of four people who don't have the virus. And here's the trick, in my opinion, to ensuring that the ratio doesn't increase: We must quit slut shaming.

Having herpes does not make a man or woman a slut. A person who has herpes does not necessarily deserve the virus. Chances are his or her partner either didn't know they had the virus or knew and didn't tell the person for fear of what the reaction would be. If we remove the shame factor, if we don't point fingers and name call — especially without knowing the full story — people with the virus are more likely to step forward and be honest. Although there is not a cure for the virus, there are antiviral medications that can prevent and shorten outbreaks, which, along with suppressive therapy, can reduce the chances of transmission to one's partner.

When I read the phony statistics presented above, I shared the link with a friend of mine via Facebook, who asked in return, "Do you know anyone with herpes?" My response: "I'm sure I do, but, no, not really. But all I have to do is go to the bar and do the math. Sometimes it feels like everyone has hooked up with everyone in our social world."

"My girlfriend has herpes," he typed into the Instant Messenger window. I obviously couldn't hear him speak, but his response suggested he was calm. Strong. Totally at ease with the information he shared with me. I was shocked. Not at the diagnosis, but his candor.

"Wait," I typed back. "Do you have herpes?"

"Nope," he said. "She's on medication."

"Wow," I wrote back. "And you're cool with it?" I'm not sure why, but I was on the edge of my seat. It felt like he was taking forever with his response.

"When she told me we were about to have sex for the first time she stopped me and let me know that she had herpes," he typed. "It kind of stressed me out for a second, but once she explained the situation to me, I just got really angry about the dude that took advantage of her."

"How did you react?" I asked him. "How did she react?"

"I got all pissed off at him, and vowed to her that I would never let some piece of garbage like that ever get near her again," he said. "She was stoic, having already dealt with this long before I came along. There was no need for apologies or tears; we both knew what we needed, and that was each other."

In that moment, I loved my friend and all he stood for. He's been with his girlfriend for close to five years. He loves her. He spoils her. He could have walked away. He could have judged her and called her a slut. And she? She could have lied. She could have withheld information. She could have refrained from taking medication and given him and others the virus. But together, the two of them, in being honest, found someone who loved them for who they truly were — inside.

They were honest with each other, and they didn't let the stigma of herpes defeat them. There's a lesson there for all of us.

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