Don't be sore

The hysteria over herpes is way overblown.

By Susie Bright
Published August 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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I've been doing some traveling this summer, and every place I visit I pick up the local paper and read every word, down to each classified ad. Of course, there are plenty of local scandals to shake my head at, but what's been steaming up my glasses this season are the endless sex-scare headlines -- one wide-eyed, hand-wringing tract after another:

Herpes: There's nothing you can do about it!

What you must tell your kids about sex before it's too late!

You may have a sexually transmitted disease -- even if you've never had sex!

You can read this stuff everywhere from the Hartford Courant to the Honolulu Advertiser. Why don't they just bundle the headlines into one big package:

Sex makes you sick! Especially if you've never tried it!

As usual, young people are used to spur grown-up fears. We are exhorted to talk to our children about our sexual concerns, but not to have the same kind of serious chat with our adult peers. We're advised to scare kids "straight" about fleshly temptation, following the model of those former junkies, with their stories and scars from prison, brought into classrooms to intimidate teenagers on the subject of drugs. In the end, we make them promise, preferably trembling, that they'll never, ever do ____________.

I have serious doubts about using tactics like these to prevent substance abuse, but applying them to sex is absurd. Are we supposed to convince kids that they should never touch another human being? Is that the end goal? I'd rather share a birth experience with young people, or teach them how to care for a child, than have them witness some spectacle that shames unwed teenage moms. Or maybe, just for some feminist irony, I'd like to bring in a group of older men who've fathered babies by teenage girls and raised none of them. Let's hear all about the stigma of their pain and embarrassment! Let me know when that appears in the L.A. Times.

Actually, I don't want to put anyone else on the rack. What I'm really interested in is the possibility that one lover has sex with another and no one's health is compromised in the least. Frankly, that's the most common sexual experience. But do any of these fear-mongering "educators" have a plan for sexual maturity rather than eradication? Everyone knows sex between two people is a mixed bag -- so what makes any of it worth the stumbling and disasters? How many of us would say that if we could take it all back, we'd rather have not been sexual at all?

Herpes hysteria is one of my special pet peeves, and I have some rebuttals to the recent media yipping. Let me provide some support for those who are still having sex -- you few wild bandits out there.

Herpes: There's something you CAN do about it -- and even if you don't, it's not the end of the world.

Herpes is epidemic, and that's not because several million people used the same soiled towel. Yes, theoretically you can get herpes without sexual contact, but you won't! You will get it as a result of fucking and sucking -- just like everyone else. The only way to drastically reduce your risk for herpes is to use condoms. Period. If you refuse to do that, then shut up and accept the inevitable. Herpes sores don't shine out like neon lights, and an afflicted lover doesn't even have to be showing a sore to be contagious. A barrier method that prevents skin-to-skin contact is the only thing that's going to reduce your risk.

The herpes scare stories I read always make a big fuss about how condoms can "fail" -- but if that's true, how come Trojan hasn't gone out of business? Condoms are a lot more reliable than tampons, napkins, coffee filters, Dixie cups and a lot of other everyday products I could mention, but you don't hear people raving about those numbers, do you?

The big problem with condoms is that when the media refuses to talk about sex in plain language, it can be hard to figure out how to use them. The young and inexperienced are at a real disadvantage unless someone takes them in hand (of course that's a nice way to learn, too). But I can tell any man in 10 seconds how to use condoms with ease: Buy a bunch of different kinds and masturbate with them until you find a kind you like. Great wankers make great condom artistes. There's no performance pressure -- just figure out your pleasure and stock up. For a delightful "insider" experience, put a drop of lube inside the reservoir tip before you slide it on. Carry rubbers on your person. Have plenty around, like candy.

I've had it with whiners who complain about condoms! They're just mad they're not getting laid more often. Guys who know what they're doing with rubbers are a lover's dream come true. When you aren't worried about getting knocked up or sick, you can thoroughly enjoy being horny. End of story.

Let's say you do have herpes. Well, welcome to the club that includes almost every sexually active person on the planet. It's not the end of the world, although it can be very annoying. The worst part is the dearth of public information and a prejudice that is particularly American. Those ads for the drug acyclovir (which relieves some herpes symptoms, but provides no cure) show preppy white people walking around in a platonic daze. The manufacturers are reassuring you that you, the herpes "sufferer," are not a slut just because you have this disease. To that extent, they're truthful. Herpes is absolutely banal, not reserved for any practice, lifestyle or ZIP code. Drugs or no drugs, and individual exceptions notwithstanding, this is not a "crippling disease."

I got infected during the most sexually monogamous period of my life -- in middle age, not my torrid youth. I'm sure I'd been exposed before, but the virus got me at a time in my life -- while I was raising a baby -- when my body was sorely run down. For me, herpes outbreaks don't even include external manifestations: I just get flu-like symptoms of fatigue and achy limbs. Keeping the virus at bay, in my case, is more about nutrition, rest and other good health practices than it is about anything particularly sexual.

Here's what I'm telling kids -- or anyone who will listen -- about sex this summer: Sexual pleasure, intimacy and self-preservation are a beautiful combination, and they are well within anyone's reach. Don't be freaked out by stories that paint death lurking behind every sexual curtain. That's a cold lie. Our erotic lives are not only what our bodies are made for, they are also where our minds will inevitably take us. Sexual practice is indeed a sharing of the most tender parts of our bodies, and that's always going to be a risky proposition.

Susie Bright

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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