A Beginner's Guide To Dealing With Herpes
It's no laughing matter...
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before…
Why shouldn’t you eat your girlfriend’s peas?
Because they’re HER PEAS.
Ahhhh herpes, the butt of every single STI joke you’ve ever heard.
By the age of 25, six out of 10 people will carry type 1 herpes, more commonly known as the ‘cold sore virus’, and one in 10 will carry type 2… AKA, herpes herpes. But what exactly is herpes, and how come a virus that affects such a huge swathe of the population is still so stigmatised? I talked to someone living with type 2 herpes about their experiences, to find out what all the fuss is about.
How old were you when you contracted herpes?
I was 17. I’d literally JUST lost my virginity a month or two before to my first girlfriend. Obviously, when you first start having sex you want to have a lot of it in a LOT of different ways. Sadly, no one ever taught us you probably shouldn’t give someone oral when you have a cold sore (thanks, sex ed). So, long story short, I contracted herpes.
What is having herpes like?
The first thing you feel is a tingle, like your genitals are rubbing awkwardly on a zip. That goes away after a day or so, and you start to think you’re okay. But then sores and blisters start appearing in your most… tender regions (typically the head of the penis, or the labia minora. You can also get it on your butt). Basically, your genitals feel sore and uncomfortable for around a week, you have it for life, and there’s no telling how often you’ll get a flare up.
Did you tell anyone at the time?
My doctor! At first I had no idea what was happening. One day you’re walking along, spring in your step because you’re finally getting laid, the next you’re cowering under your bed covers wondering why the hell your bell end looks like a greasy pizza! My mum took my down to the doctors (obviously I didn’t tell her why it was so important), and I got the diagnosis.
How did it make you feel?
I was pretty shocked, to be honest. You don’t expect to get a sexually transmitted infection so soon after losing your virginity, especially one that stays with you for LIFE. Also, by virtue of being a boy in the British education system, my entire teenage life had been dominated by herpes jokes. So it was weird hearing one for the first time after contracting it and thinking ‘hey, you’re talking about me!’
Has it affected your dating?
I’ve lived with herpes for over ten years now, and in the beginning it caused me a huge amount of stress. I was terrified, and had no idea when to tell people I was dating – first date, second date, when I meet the parents, maybe ask the parents to tell them on your behalf? But then I realised that the only appropriate time is before you… get intimate. At first I was worried it would kill the mood, but actually it’s really good, and opens up a dialogue about sexual history and preferences before getting down to it, which means the sex is always better! Once you explain that herpes is pretty much impossible to transmit when you use physical protection (condoms, dental dams, etc), it’s absolutely fine.
How do you feel about it now?
I’m completely at peace with my little friend, the herpes simplex virus, but really wish people would talk about it more. It’s so hard to do though, because when you talk about sexually transmitted infections, you’re not only talking about yourself, but also people you’ve slept with, who may not want to have their sexual health discussed.
So that’s why you’ve chosen to remain anonymous?
I am all for openness and honesty, and think this issue needs to be talked about to become normalised. However, we’re a long way off that yet, so yes, I have chosen to remain anonymous. I don’t want to effectively ‘out’ my past partners.
What advice do you have for young people who might contract herpes?
My first piece of advice is try not to. Like I said before, herpes is a forever infection, it literally does not ever go away. Practice safe and sensible sex whenever you can, wear condoms, and seriously, if your partner asks to go down on your when they have a cold sore, maybe just go and have a cold shower.
If you do contract herpes, it is seriously not the end of the world. Flare ups (getting the blisters) are not that common, and they get less and less severe each time (or at least they have in my case). Your doctor may be able to prescribe medication, which can head off a flare up (like taking First Defense for a cold), so that’s always an option if you end up showing symptoms frequently. Make sure to let your partner / potential sexual partners know, and practice safe sex with them so they don’t contract the infection without their consent. If you feel like it, confide in your closest friends. You never know, maybe they’ll have some herpes stories of their own!
Either way, remember that it is nothing to be ashamed of. You’re still sexy. You’re still healthy. You’re not gonna die (well, not from herpes at least). You’re great.
- Interview by Josh Pappenheim
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