Sore Subject: The Symptoms of Herpes Aren't Just Physical
Once science has the power to eliminate herpes, we'll have to start talking about it.
I recently visited a porn set (long story) where male stars perform an extraordinary move: They apply a condom in every scene. Condom use is rare in the straight porn world—though performers are required to undergo frequent blood tests in order to stay on set, condoms are not currently mandated, and they tend to be unpopular with consumers. But this particular title was meant to appeal to a relatively untapped demographic—buttoned-up women who prefer their performers use protection. Since this is all about the viewer, some performers keep the condoms on for the, uh, relevant shots, then remove them when they're not visible. It can be easier to work that way.
To reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, every straight performer is routinely tested for HIV, hepatitis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. When I asked one employee on set about herpes, she raised her hands and squished her mouth into the universal sign for "meh." Given their job descriptions and the potential to contract herpes with or without a condom, porn performers will likely get herpes at some point in their careers, whether they use protection or not.
The sexual mores of the porn industry are admittedly unique. But even off the set, the seriousness of a genital herpes infection is often a matter of perception, and the affliction is both physical and psychological. According to the CDC, about 1 in 6 American adults is infected with genital herpes. The CDC says that herpes "can cause recurrent painful genital sores in many adults, and herpes infection can be severe in people with suppressed immune systems." Then, this: "Regardless of severity of symptoms, genital herpes frequently causes psychological distress in people who know they are infected." Most people don't know.
Herpes has some serious physical side effects—it can sometimes be painful, may help facilitate the spread of HIV, and can (in very rare cases) pass an infection to a newborn through a newly infected mother. But mostly, it's awkward. In 2007, a survey of 2,000 people listed herpes as the second most-stigmatized STD (the first was HIV), and the most taboo one. In the poll, 39 percent of people with genital herpes attested to facing stigma. And that kind of stigma helps herpes spread: 38 percent of people with herpes had invented an excuse to avoid sex during an outbreak instead of discussing their diagnosis with a partner. In response to the study, Jezebel declared herpes "so whatevs," outed 2 out of its 5 writers as having the virus, and declared feeling "offended that people are, well, offended by our infection."
Researchers are currently working on a vaccine that's had some success in preventing one strain of the herpes virus. It's hardly the most serious disease for scientists to tackle, but it does stand to change the cultural conversation about one of our most prevalent STDs. Once science has the power to eliminate herpes, we'll have to start talking about it.