Herpes nation

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

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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:

Susie,

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.)

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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.

Sincerely,

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.

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