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February 22, 2019

Sex & Dating With Herpes

Episode 95

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Courtney Brame joins Jess and Brandon to talk about sex, relationships and dating after an STI diagnosis. He shares insights on how to disclose, provides advice on sexual communication and talks about stigma, suicide and self-worth.

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Check out Courtney’s podcast, Something Positive for Positive People here.

Jess was also interviewed about the herpes stigma recently and we’ve included the notes from the interview below.

1. Why is there a stigma around herpes?

Sex is stigmatized and so all potentially negative outcomes of sex are intensely stigmatized. The unnecessary suffering that sometimes accompanies herpes is ultimately because of the stigma — not the virus itself.

Herpes seems to hold a special stigma that is not proportionate to its health risk. In terms of health, most people with herpes have nothing to worry about. Outbreaks are often rare, decrease with time and can be relived and surpassed with antiviral medication. You do want to take precaution when having sex (herpes can increase the risk of HIV transmission and be a risk when pregnant), but overall, it need not have a significant impact on your (sex) life since we all should be practicing safer sex.

Part of the stigma is reinforced by herpes jokes that don’t seem to apply to other STIs.

2. What steps can one take to alleviate the shame and depression that often accompany a diagnosis?

Know that you’re perfectly normal — and healthy! People contract bacterial and viral infections all the time (the common cold, flu, etc.) and they don’t hang their head in shame. It’s absurd that we see sexually transmitted infections as remarkably different from the ones that occur from not washing your hands properly after riding the subway.

I have a client who takes pride in smashing stereotypes and tells dates about her herpes when they first meet. She shares stats to normalize the conversation (1 in 5 Americans have it) and is armed with accurate information about its transmission (medication can reduce breakouts and transmission).

When you share the fact that you have an STI, know that their reaction is really a reflection of their own knowledge and comfort (or lack thereof) and not a reflection of their feelings toward you. If they are judgmental, fearful or express hurtful rejection, it’s likely a matter of their own discomfort (with sex generally – we stigmatize STIs that are easier to treat than the common cold) or lack of knowledge. I know it shouldn’t be your job to educate people, but it can help the conversation to unfold more smoothly if you provide accurate info about transmission, management and treatment. Many of the clients I work with say that the majority of their experiences have been positive – they’ve been met with positive responses from new lovers who appreciate and learn from their honesty.

3. If you don’t have herpes, what are some things you can do to help disempower the stigma? What are some things you’d suggest saying to a friend who’s been diagnosed?

Stop making herpes jokes. We’re all guilty of this. If you look back at homophobic jokes in movies from 10-20 years ago, it seems shameful. Hopefully we can convince filmmakers to cut out the herpes jokes as well so that we’ll look back and see how ridiculous, harmful and unfunny they really were.

If a friend shares their diagnosis…

  • Don’t ask prying questions (how did you get it? do you have an outbreak now? who gave it to you?)
  • Do research on your own. If you have questions, turn to reliable online resources (https://www.cdc.gov/std/herpes/default.htm, http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/stdsstis/herpes/) and don’t expect your friend to educate you or answer all of your questions.
  • Ask them what you can do to help. Do they want you to look for resources? Do they have questions you can help with
  • Don’t tell other people. It’s up to them to share their health status with others at their discretion.
  • Ask supportive questions like, “How are you handling the news?” Let them talk and don’t offer advice unless they ask you to do so.
  • However they react, validate their feelings. If they feel it’s a big deal, that’s their prerogative; don’t invalidate their reaction with comments like “it’s not a big deal”. Even if it’s not a huge deal from a health perspective, they have a right to respond emotionally as they see fit.

This podcast is brought to you by Desire Resorts.