Okay, the title of this post may have thrown you off, but hopefully it also lured you in so that you can hear me out.
What’s the story here? Just that herpes is way more common than most people realize, and that you can get it from people who may or may not even know that they have it.
Herpes is a virus that causes outbreaks of blister-like lesions on the skin. Many people have had these on their mouth, where they are known as cold sores. When these same lesions appear on the genitals they are known as genital herpes. Technically they are two different versions of the same virus. HSV-1 is usually found in oral herpes cases. HSV-2 is usually found in genital herpes cases, but either virus can cause outbreaks in either location. Upstairs can go downstairs, and downstairs can go upstairs, as it were. Ahem.
According to the American Sexual Health Association, it’s estimated that about 50% of the adult population have had a cold sore on their mouth at some point in their life, meaning they have HSV-1. Half the population! That means that half the population could potentially give you genital herpes if they performed unprotected oral sex on you, so use protection, ask for your partner’s STI status well BEFORE you engage in any hanky panky, and don’t forget to ask if they’ve ever had a cold sore. If they have, you may be at risk to contract herpes. Unfortunately, most people who are infected with the herpes virus never show any symptoms, so even if they’ve never had an outbreak, they could STILL give you herpes.
According to the Center for Disease Control, around one in six people aged 14 to 49 in the United States have the HSV-2 virus, AKA genital herpes. One in six. That’s a lot. Same deal here, they may have never had an outbreak, but they can still give it to you, and YOU can have an outbreak! If you have one outbreak, you’ll likely have more, as the herpes virus will stay with you forever.The good news though is that the outbreaks tend to decrease in frequency and severity over time.
The best way to minimize your risk of getting herpes is to know the STI status of all your partners, and to know your own. You can (and should) be one of those awesome responsible people who doesn’t give their partners the surprise gift that nobody wants. Routine STI screenings won’t check for the herpes virus, so you have to ask for it specifically.
To get a test for herpes, ask for an IGG-type specific blood test. It will show if you have antibodies to either of the two viruses, and tell you which one, if either, you have. This test will only pick up the antibodies though, which take about three to four months after the initial outbreak to show up, so it isn’t 100% accurate. Just do the best you can. And always practice safer sex (no sex is totally “safe”).
Use protection when your partner’s STI status is unknown. That means dental dams for cunnalingus and analingus, and condoms for anal sex, vaginal sex, sex toys if shared between partners, fellatio, etc. And even if you DO use condoms every time, herpes has an asymptomatic shedding period, when the virus can be passed even if there are no sores, and only the part of the body that the condom is covering is protected, and herpes can be spread from scrotum to vulva.
But even if you do all of those things, some people will STILL get herpes!
I have four friends who I know have herpes. (All names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Susie got an outbreak of herpes out of nowhere. Her ex-boyfriend had it, but she’d never had any signs of it. Six months after she left him she got her first outbreak.
Carmen and Leslie each had their first outbreaks of herpes after several years of being with their monogamous male partners. In both cases, their boyfriends had never so much as a cold sore, and both men tested negative for herpes. Where did it come from? Had they been exposed to it earlier and the virus lay dormant for years before deciding “to rear its ugly-ass head“ (as Leslie said)? No one knows.
Karen got it from her boyfriend performing oral sex on her. She’d never had sexual intercourse. He didn’t have any cold sores on his mouth. She still got herpes. Total bummer.
In addition, Amanda told me that her MOTHER had a first outbreak of genital herpes at the age of 67. She has no clue how she got it, having only had two partners her whole life.
None of these women had sex with a partner who had visible herpes sores, and yet they are all now saddled with this disease that will last them a lifetime. All of my friends who came down with herpes expressed emotions of pain, rage, sadness, anger and shame. Feelings of being “gross” or “tainted” came up as well. The (totally untrue) stigma around herpes is that it’s horrible and disgusting, and that only bad, dirty people get it. This same stigma is what keeps people from asking for those specific tests, hence it gets spread around more because no one is talking about it.