Herpes nation

Readers praise and blast me for saying the virus is no big deal. Let's clear up a few things.


I seem to have struck a nerve with my last column on the hype and hypocrisy surrounding the epidemic herpes virus; it certainly inspired an unusual amount of e-mail. One reader, who hosts a herpes support mailing list, wrote me, “You are the only public figure who has come out to my knowledge and admitted to having this.”

Sheesh, if that’s true it’s ridiculous. Herpes is so much less traumatic than many other conditions people live with all their lives, it’s not even fair to make a comparison. Yes, it’s worse than dandruff, but it’s nowhere near as bad as high blood pressure, migraines or plantar warts!

It’s not the true nature of this disease but the sexual shame and prejudice surrounding it that shuts people up. I urge you to follow my example, get out of the herpes closet and put an end to leper-colony metaphors!

Other itchy, cranky, sometimes-terrified and sometimes-grateful people wrote to me about their own experiences with herpes. Here are a few:


You are dumb. You can get herpes with condoms, because the sores can be anywhere, and oral sex spreads herpes too.

Dear Anonymous:

You are so sweet. I should have been more blunt in my condom advice! I merely said that rubbers would “drastically reduce” one’s chances of infection. Instead, I should have loudly shouted that they will NOT eliminate the risk, any more than wearing a hat in the rain will keep your feet dry. You can certainly get infected from mouth-to-genital contact, or by rubbing against a sore in the pubic-hair area or on the perineum, to give some common examples.

But hey, don’t be so conservative: Condoms can be used for oral occasions as well. You can even split one in half and use it as an instant “dental dam.” The point I’m making is that if you cover up a “prime area,” it will save you from overexposure, n’est-ce pas?

Once again, people are bitching about condoms, rather than admitting that rubbers have alleviated much worry and suffering while providing the opportunity for orgasms and intimacy for millions. I am perfectly willing to grouse about the drawbacks of condoms with folks who actually use them on a regular basis, but I find that most of those whining about rubbers are people who A) are not getting laid very often, and B) have no realistic plan to protect themselves or their partners, preferring instead to rely on romance and moralism to save their butts. Now that’s what I call dumb.

On a more concrete level, I feel certain that my frequent use of condoms kept me from getting herpes for many years — not to mention the other STDs it shielded me from. Using condoms, I fucked my brains out for a good 10 years before I came down with a sore — just as you might predict — on my perineum, one of the spots that condoms don’t protect from the virus. (Sex remains very much a part of my life, but horseback riding is out.)

This e-mail was sent to Salon’s editors:

Susie Bright’s article reflects the ignorance and recklessness that has led to the spread of so many cases of herpes … For our children’s sake, they need to be given the facts regarding STDs. Monogamy is the only way to truly prevent the spread of STDs, and minimizing the disease will only make things worse.


J. Okamoto, M.D.

Dear Doctor:

Oh yeah, you’re right — I keep forgetting to say that if two virgins (who have never had so much as a cold sore on their mouths) marry each other and then never have sex with anyone but each other, they are definitely going to live a herpes-free existence! Gosh, if only more people could follow their example.

You are not helping by treating people with average sex lives as reckless fools and by wagging your finger about marital fidelity. You’re only going to scare people until the moment when they feel so horny, lonely or cynical that they throw all caution to the wind.

What would you say to the woman who wrote the following message?

I am only 30, I have only had two sex partners in my whole life, and I just had my first herpes outbreak. I never thought this would happen to me. My doctor is out of town, but when he comes back, I’m afraid to ask him what comes next. Can I tell who gave this to me? How long have I been infected? Do I have to tell my other partner from a few years ago? Will I be able to have children? When will I be able to have sex again?

Well, if your doctor is like the one who e-mailed me, I don’t blame you for having the heebie-jeebies. If you get scolding “monogamy” rants from your physician, you should know that he or she is not aware of the full range of research and debate on this subject.

A few hints: You can have sex whenever you want, although you may not enjoy it during outbreaks. Probably, you will want to change the kind of sex you have at those times. Your partner may have a preferred means of self-protection, and I’m sure you’ll talk about how you want to handle this. There’s no single “right” way that everyone agrees on. Generally, when you get that “tingly feeling” or those telltale flu-like symptoms, you will want to avoid exposing the affected area to pressure, heat (that includes sun!) or friction.

You can have children. You can have virtually the same life you’ve always had, but you’re going to need to be more aware of your genitals, your immune system and your well-being — which is a good thing in any case.

Please stop beating yourself up about how and when you got infected and who it came from. Even if you knew, this is a classic case of spilt milk.

There is an etiquette for telling your former lovers about your current status. First, you look up anyone who’s still in your Rolodex. Then you write: “I’ve just experienced my first herpes outbreak and am learning about how to take care of myself and prevent reinfection. Feel free to get in touch with me if you want to share stress-relieving strategies!”

In other words, you tell them what’s happening to you. Do not assign blame. Instead, open a window to sharing mutual support. Neither dish out abuse nor accept it!

I would recommend that you, and the scolding doctor who wrote me as well, check out the information and support available at these herpes information Web sites.

Finally, a pertinent note from another veteran:

Most people have oral herpes, and most were infected in childhood, myself included. Why do people with oral herpes feel under no obligation to reveal their herpes status before they kiss and suck, while people with genital herpes who don’t announce themselves as infected before sexual contact are considered dishonest, evil, disease-spreading sluts? What if you haven’t had a genital outbreak in five years? What if you get a cold sore every summer?

And don’t tell me it’s because people are more afraid of getting sores on their genitals. I’ve had people perfectly happy for me to go down on them, but they were not OK going down on me.

Between outbreaks, my oral attention to them puts their genitals at a small risk, while their going down on me puts their probably-already-infected mouth at a small risk. They were already at a bigger risk when they spent the evening kissing me! (HSV-1 attaches to the mouth easier than HSV-2.)

The absolute worst thing about herpes is telling people about it and wondering what reaction you’ll get. I had boyfriends in high school who got lots of oral sex from me, but no one cared when they saw a cold sore on my lip (I of course kept my mouth to myself at those times), and no one was infected. So why the new rules for genital herpes? Why the new stigma for the same symptoms? Why the new hysteria for the same risk? The oral ones hurt worse, for God’s sake. It’s pure hypocrisy.

Thanks for reading,

Sonia Arana

Susie Bright is the author of the new book "Full Exposure" and many other books, and the editor of the "Best American Erotica" series. For more columns by Bright, visit her website.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>