Going Deep with Jodie Layne

Breaking down the stigma of living with herpes

Our knowledge about safer sex usually includes reduction of risk and getting tested. We learn about the different kinds of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and what they might look like. When we don’t have them, we refer to ourselves as “clean.” In fact, STIs are so incredibly commonplace that approximately 26 per cent of a sample of American female youth aged 14-19 had one.

Having an STI is not the end of the world. It just means that someone gave you an infection. In most cases it’s possible to prevent them from spreading while still having a satisfying sex life.

With a strong emphasis on prevention in sexual education, we can end up stigmatizing having an STI. Next week, we’ll touch on ways to minimize the possibility of spreading infections to a sexual partner. This week I wanted to talk to someone with herpes about what it’s like to have a partner with whom they are sexually active. Lucy*, who wished to stay anonymous to protect her partner, is quite open about nearly everything – including having an STI.


Going Deep: What was your reaction when you found out that you had an STI?

Lucy: I wasn’t that surprised. I think I knew. It’s weird, because I don’t know when I actually contracted it – I didn’t have an initial outbreak that I was aware of [ . . . ] I kept getting what I thought were ingrown hairs in the same two spots. When you get outbreaks, they happen in the same place.

What really got me were the prodromal symptoms (those which signal the onset of infection or disease): pain in my legs, and butt, and labia. That’s what made me go to Planned Parenthood. It’s super tough to test for – a lot of tests come back inconclusive and the outbreak has to be fresh.

My first thought was actually: I wish I knew how long I’ve had this for, and do I need to call my past partners. I had always been about no shame, and if friends would contract something, I’d be like, “It’s not a death sentence, people are still going to want to have sex with you!”

When it happened to me, I felt kind of gross and didn’t feel sexy. They use the word ulcerated to describe my genitals and I was like, “Ugh, that’s not a word I want describing my sexy parts!”

GD: What was the process when you got your diagnosis? Were you educated about your herpes?

L: It’s funny because I had actually been a sex educator before that. It’s so important to note that I was a sex educator and I couldn’t tell my symptoms were herpes – it doesn’t look like what they tell you it looks like. So, I didn’t have many questions but they were so great, and were willing to talk to me, and gave me so much information.

GD: So, the guy you were dating at the time is now your husband. How did he react when you told him?

L: He had actually told me that he thought that he might have it, but he didn’t know. So, we’d been having sex without condoms for the three months since we’d been dating. This was not a smart decision [ . . . ] but we were both like, “I’m clean,” and, “Cool, me too.”

Then about a year later he told me that once in college he had bumps, but he didn’t know what they were, and he had an inconclusive test, and that was it – he’d never had it again. Men often don’t get outbreaks in the same ways that women do, so he thought it was all good and chose not to mention it.

When I told him, he went and got a blood test done and tested positive. We’ve never had to worry about me passing it on to him.

GD: Are there any ways it’s affected your sex life then?

L: Well, he never gets outbreaks, but I’m fairly symptomatic. Sometimes I get really resentful because he has literally no consequences of having it. I get outbreaks and prodromal symptoms at least every other month on some level, so I’m uncomfortable a lot of the time and he never is.

We can’t really have sex when I’m having an outbreak or even if I feel one coming on. Not only is it physically uncomfortable, but I don’t feel attractive or like I want to be touched in any way. I’ll avoid even foreplay [when] I have an outbreak because I’m a little uncomfortable in the area of my body I associate with sex.

GD: What would you say to people who have a partner who discloses an STI? How can they be supportive and what should they know?

L: Well, if having an STI is a deal breaker for you, fine. But, just keep in mind it’s really hard to tell somebody that. You think you’re going be rejected – there are so many people who never disclose to their partners, even if it’s the right thing to do, because they’re so afraid to do that.

Their biggest fear is that you’re going to judge them so try not to do that. [Their STI] is not who they are at all; it’s not a bearing on what kind of person they are, or how many people they’ve been with, or what kind of people they’ve been with.


You can confidentially submit a question or topic to jodie.m.w.layne@gmail.com