y name is Jenny, I am a sex educator, and I have herpes.
I’ve been studying and working in sexual health for 10 years. I am well-versed in the risk factors and symptoms of STIs, and I had (what I believed to be comprehensive) routine testing every 6 months or so since I began having multiple partners in college. There was no way an STI was getting past me - until it did.
I went to the doctor with my first breakout, expecting to be diagnosed with herpes but needing to hear it out loud from someone else. My breakout was not pleasant, but it did not look like the scary pictures I’d seen on the internet and even in my sexuality classes. It was not nearly as frightening as we are taught to anticipate. Learning that the first outbreak of herpes is usually the most painful or uncomfortable made me feel better as well.
I was diagnosed with genital herpes rather recently, more than a year into a monogamous sexual relationship with my now husband. We understood there was really no way to know “whose fault” this was - but truly, that’s not what mattered, and it’s not a healthy way to frame STIs. We educated ourselves and learned herpes (like many STIs) can be asymptomatic for years, in some cases never showing signs or outbreaks. My diagnosis was now just another part of my health, something else I would need to be conscious of, like understanding viral shedding and how to prevent or treat future outbreaks.
Due to my line of work, folks share their STI experiences with me often (because so many of us have them!), making sure to note that their partner had cheated, that they had been lied to, they had been “dumb” about protection - this is internalized stigma! Herpes can happen to anyone. It’s estimated 1 in 6 people ages 14-49 in the US have genital herpes, though this number is most likely higher. Contracting herpes is not shameful, and does not have to be the result of a bad experience, nor is it a punishment.
As a sex educator I choose to focus on awareness, normalizing sexuality, and communication as ways to improve sexual health, as opposed to only pushing risk reduction behaviors. I absolutely believe everyone should be equipped with the knowledge to make safer sex decisions, but I also want everyone to know that STIs are normal, and actually pretty unavoidable for sexually active folks (yep, even if you use condoms). I believe knowledge and open discussions about sexuality are the keys to changing harmful perceptions and myths that lead to negative health outcomes.
I feel lucky my experience living with herpes has been a mostly positive one - in fact, my diagnosis has not yet affected my overall health, my sex life, or really my life in general. I had a mild first outbreak, and my body has done a great job suppressing the virus in the time since. I have a partner whose first response was to make sure I would be out of pain, not to question the new elephant in the room. But very often this isn’t the case, and I hold space for the many people who feel crushed by their forever STI, mostly due to misinformation and stigma. I think sometimes about how this experience would be different had I been single when I was diagnosed with herpes. How my dating life would be affected, the possible rejection I could face from potential partners. These are very present realities for people, and easily complicate navigating one’s diagnosis.
I still hear the jokes, and I can’t deny I’ve felt guilty teaching others about sexual health and STIs, all the while feeling like a fraud. Some will think “sex educator with an incurable STI” is an oxymoron, or perhaps a reflection of my credibility. I’m here to tell you what it makes me: human. Simply a human who has had sex. I’m still learning to love myself, and forgive myself for these thoughts rooted not in science but in shame, and I want to help others do the same. It’s important for me to speak up about my herpes diagnosis so that I can truly do my best in my goal of normalizing all aspects of sexuality and sexual health - the good, the bad, and the itchy.
~ Jenny [ @sexpositivesexed ]