Understanding
The Herpes Stigma

The effect of the herpes stigma is way out of proportion to the actual virus. Genital herpes is a very common virus infecting approximately 45 million people in the United States. Yet its effects, while sometimes uncomfortable, are rarely more than irritating. Herpes is one of the most ridiculed and stigmatized viruses today.  


But why is there such a negative stigma around a common virus that’s for the most part harmless?

Why does society make us feel ashamed and guilty for having genital herpes?

And why do we, ourselves in the genital herpes community feel ashamed for having the virus?

Survey Tells An Interesting Tale

A Harris Interactive poll was conducted in 2007 with nearly 2000 participants concluded that herpes is the second most stigmatized sexually transmitted disease today.  The study consisted of 1,400 people who said that they did not have genital herpes and about 500 who said that they were positive for herpes. The interactive poll revealed several staggering results.

The participant’s were questioned about their relationships and their general views about genital herpes and out of all the sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, they collectively ranked genital herpes second for social stigma. Only HIV ranked higher.

Among the participants who had genital herpes, 39% said they were troubled by social stigma around genital herpes.

Of the 500 participants who reported having genital herpes outbreaks, 38% said they had made up an excuse to avoid having sex during an outbreak, instead of telling their partner about their condition.

Unfortunately because of the very negative stigma, most people without genital herpes said they would avoid having a relationship with someone who has genital herpes and break up with a partner who had genital herpes.

If this survey is an accurate reflection of the view of the majority of the American public then it simply saddens me to know that the most people would avoid having a relationship with someone with herpes or break up with a partner who had herpes.

Of all of the things that can go wrong in a relationship, herpes should be so far down the list that it’s nearly invisible.

The Genital Herpes Stigma is a Result of Public Ignorance

It’s very unfortunate that the majority of people will only hear the jokes and the negative comments about herpes on television and movies. Did you know much about herpes BEFORE you were diagnosed?

Neither did I!

They generalize the information and conclude that people who have genital herpes should have somehow known better. They should have been more careful when selecting a sexual partner. They are dirty and should be ashamed.

Most people don’t know that genital herpes is a very common condition silently living in the nerve endings of approximately 45 million Americans.

The general public doesn’t know that most people who have the virus will never show symptoms of genital herpes or that most will never develop any serious medical problems.

Where Did The Genital Herpes Stigma Come From?

The main factor that makes genital herpes so unattractive probably lies in the word ‘genital'. Anything subject connected to sexual actions is affected by a several moral and social issues and is uncomfortable to logically discuss. Sexual activities are viewed as a deliberate act and the responsibility of the people involved. Following this line of thinking, the person who becomes infected with genital herpes, is seen as showing a lack of moral judgment and is potentially dangerous to society. Therefore society lashes out.

This stigma began to develop in the late 1970’s when the media began publishing articles with headlines such as “Herpes II: A Spreading Form of VD to Beware” (Business Week-July 1979) and “Herpes: The New Sexual Leprosy” (TIME Magazine-July 1980). These headlines and articles were purposefully meant to impose fear and anxiety in society. Genital herpes was portrayed as punishment for all the young people who went against society and was openly and freely having more sex as a result of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

As you can see, the mainstream media portrayed genital herpes in the worse way possible and that led to the herpes stigma that’s currently still prospering in society today. It wasn’t until the discovery of HIV in the early 1980’s that the media stopped regularly reporting the negative aspects of the virus. HIV was more newsworthy because it was killing people.

Why has the herpes stigma persisted for over 30 years?

The medical community has some responsibility for keeping the genital herpes stigma alive. In their efforts to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases the medical community began an all out “safe sex” campaign to show the public the negative effects of having an STD. Public service campaigns filled with television commercials, magazine ads, and roadside billboards portraying young people as being devastated and broken upon learning about contracting a STD.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines genital herpes as: “HVS-2 is a lifelong and incurable infection that can cause recurring and painful genital sores and can make those infected with the virus two-to-three times more likely to acquire HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.”

They describe it as a “Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD)”, and a “highly contagious infection”. They use words such as “incurable” and “infectious”. It’s ironic that genital herpes fraternal twin brother, herpes simplex 1 (HSV-1, the herpes virus that causes cold sores), is barely mentioned on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

The Medical Community Should Take Another Look!

Over the last 20 years medical science has gained a better understanding of genital herpes and they have slowly become more refined and sophisticated in their messages. Maybe it's also time to take another look at how the safe sex message is conveyed, in order to get a greater understanding of the genital herpes stigma?

Genital herpes can be effectively treated and outbreaks can be drastically reduced through various types of medications, healthy eating habits and a generally healthy lifestyle. But there no prescription to mask the stigma that is draped upon those of us who has this irritating skin condition.

Participate in Our Herpes Stigma Poll Question

Take a few moments and answer our Poll question. Please provide your honest opinion. Hopefully this poll will be provide insights for other people who don't have genital herpes or those who are living with the virus.

Herpes Stigma Poll Question

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