student unions

I Contracted Herpes At Uni. Here’s How I Coped

Illustrated by Maïté Marque.
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Last year, in my final year at Bristol University, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. I had experienced an excruciatingly painful sore on my vulva on at least one occasion – something nobody wants to have happen to them – and initially thought it was eczema but was then struck by a sudden moment of fear that it might be an STI. As anyone experiencing unusual symptoms in the 21st century does, I consulted Google. I compared my symptoms with descriptions and images of herpes and anxiously messaged my friends about the myriad afflictions I might have before making an appointment with a health professional.
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Sitting in the waiting room I convinced myself that the sore was most likely a friction burn from my vibrator and that I was being ridiculous, only to be told moments later by the nurse that, judging by the pain I experienced when she did the swab, it was most likely herpes. I’d have to wait a week to have the results confirmed.
The next week was spent in the agony of the unknown. I tried my best to believe that when I finally got the call, the results would be negative. I went about mentally preparing myself by rationalising the best and worst case scenarios, as I usually do when faced with a situation that’s out of my control. I felt an overwhelming concoction of things: anxious that the test would come back positive; embarrassed by the prospect of having to tell people and live with the fact that I had herpes; angry with whoever might have given it to me; ashamed that I’d been careless enough to get into this situation to begin with (reviewing every sexual interaction I’d had up to that point, my chances weren’t looking great); disappointed in myself that I was experiencing any negative feelings at all.
Even though I had an amazing support network of people who tried to reassure me that herpes is extremely common, my feelings remained as intense as ever. Their reassurances did nothing to dismiss the internalised shame I felt for maybe having an STI that I’d had no knowledge about before that moment. I think of myself as sex-positive (I even have a podcast that touts sex positivity) so recognising that I had negative feelings about potentially having an STI only added to the confusing soup of emotions and rattled my sense of self even more.
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Eventually I got confirmation that the test was positive. Was this a death sentence for my sex life? The only information the doctor gave me about life with herpes was that it's really important that I use a condom every time I have sex. I later sought further advice and treatment from a sexual health service but no more help was offered to me by the student health GP who informed me of my diagnosis (despite herpes being the second most common STI at UK universities, according to Unifresher).

After a considerable period of nursing my wounds and being cajoled out of my misery by my mum and my friends, I decided that I really could not allow my life to be controlled by having herpes. Spurred on by remembering that I do, in actual fact, really like sex (and that I hadn’t had any in about six months), I became determined to find out as much about herpes as I could so that my life could resume its regularly scheduled programming.

I practised disclosing to people in my head and out loud in my empty bedroom until, in a strange form of manifestation, I felt I would be able to tell someone confidently that I have herpes and be mentally prepared for rejection.

First of all I learned as much about the physical effects of herpes as I could comprehend, before turning to people’s personal experiences and advice. With the help of podcasts and the subreddit r/Herpes, I slowly went from knowing herpes wasn’t as big a deal as I thought to believing it. I found comfort in the knowledge that thousands of people were going through the same thing as I was, even if we were sharing our experiences through a screen (I was – and still am – disappointed not to meet someone who admits to having genital herpes in real life). At the same time I was incredulous that so many people struggle with the same emotional turmoil as I did, even though herpes is so common. According to the World Health Organization, about half a billion people worldwide are living with genital herpes and several billion have an oral herpes infection. Yet social stigma prevents us from talking about it as much as we probably should in order to process it, raise awareness and support each other.
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This stigma is what worried me the most because I thought I knew how people would react when I told them I have herpes. Reddit is full of stories from people with herpes who have satisfactory sex lives – through them I learned the ethics (and dramatics) of disclosing. Most people are in agreement that if you’re not legally obliged to disclose your herpes status to a potential sexual partner in the country you’re in, then you’re definitely morally obliged to do so. I knew I agreed with this sentiment but when I began to imagine disclosing to people I’d previously slept with, I could only imagine that this interaction would lead to rejection. What’s more, despite feeling more in control of my body and emotions than I initially had when I found out I have herpes, I couldn’t imagine myself actually saying the words "I have herpes" to someone I wanted to, or was about to, have sex with without breaking down in tears. I practised disclosing to people in my head and out loud in my empty bedroom until, in a strange form of manifestation, I felt I would be able to tell someone confidently that I have herpes and be mentally prepared for rejection.
The opportunity to disclose to someone in real life soon arose. After the build-up I’d granted this moment, it was rather anticlimactic. Just before we started making out, I pushed him away and exclaimed: "Wait! I have herpes." He looked quite alarmed but was fine with it after I explained that it is usually safe to have sex when you are diagnosed with herpes, between breakouts, provided you use a condom. While I think that ultimately I was the only person who could convince myself that herpes wasn’t going to ruin my sex life, it was an affirmation of all the work I’d been doing to reach this level of acceptance to hear someone else accept it and still want to sleep with me.
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Since then, most people I’ve disclosed to have reacted similarly. I recently experienced my first rejection after disclosing and even that was respectful and much less painful than I thought it would be. Most people know little to nothing about herpes but if they’re open to talking about it or asking questions, they usually realise that it’s not a deal-breaker (it just so happens that the man who rejected me wasn’t open to it). It has also led to further conversation with potential partners about sexual health and what we each enjoy during sex, which I almost never disclosed to people before. One man I disclosed to already knew a bit about herpes, and it was super hot.
There are, of course, days when I hate having herpes. This is usually during an outbreak or when I’m so horny that I really don’t want to have the extra consideration of whether someone will judge me when I disclose to them. In some ways I am still disappointed about not being able to have sex as often as I’d like to, or at least having the option to sleep with more people, but I frequently surprise myself by realising that those people and situations are simply not worth it for me anymore. Not only will they be wholly sexually unsatisfying but I’ll leave feeling judged or shamed or disrespected, which is something I really don’t need from anyone – particularly not someone I’m considering sleeping with. I put myself through enough grief in those initial weeks to make up for a lifetime of potentially unfulfilling and disrespectful sexual interactions.
I might always have an ambiguous relationship with the fact that I have herpes but as long as I remind myself that it doesn’t mean I don't deserve respect, open communication or pleasurable sexual interactions, then I’m okay with it. I now know that I can be sex-positive while feeling complex emotions about my body and my sexuality, and that I don’t want to have sex with people who aren’t at least open to talking about herpes, or anything related to sexual health. I’m thankful that I’ve been forced to realise these things and treat myself more kindly, even if it means having herpes for the rest of my life.
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