I’ve recently started working in sexual health services and am also a haver of sex, so there’s some personal feelings I have about this stuff as well as some sciencey facts that I need to lay on you, but first some observations I have made since working in sexual health.
1. Even in a sexual health clinic people are afraid to say the word ‘sex’. They often say ‘oh, you know” and look away and cough.
2. People on the whole have very little knowledge about how sexually transmitted infections are passed from one person to another. I saw a patient this week who had a series of insect bites on their forearm that thought they’d caught from a blow job.
3. Lots of people are not using condoms anywhere near as often as the health service would like them to.
These three things lead me to believe that people are going about having sex in a mostly terrified bewilderment and that makes me sad. Stigma is such a pain in the butt, much like gonorrhoea except much more prevalent. The difference is that unlike the new antibiotic resistant strains of gonorrhoea that they found in Australia recently, stigma can be cured at least in part, just by talking.
Here is the personal anecdote section of the blog piece:
When I was younger and eager to impress my sexual partners, I used to get Brazillian waxes. The thing about Brazillian waxes is they rip little holes in your skin in areas that are warm and often moist and are by all accounts considered perfect breeding grounds for bacteria. Some people are lucky and they don’t get spots and ingrown hairs and cysts after having a Brazillian waxes but I was not one of those people. Apparently my whole family is just ‘cysty’. Thanks, genetics.
Anyway, many years after I stopped pulling out all my public hair with hot wax, I still have occasional problems with spots and ingrown hairs and cysts and sometimes I get worried that maybe they’re not just spots or ingrown hairs or cysts and that in fact they are ‘The Herpes’. FYI, calling HSV ‘The Herpes” is really stigmatising and I’ve heard actual Doctors say it to patients and it needs to stop. Wording is important.
I went to get one such spot swabbed a few weeks ago, to check what was up and while I was waiting for my results to be texted to me, I had my first conversation with my mother, who is also a nurse, about STI’s. I am 30 years old. This is when she told me that she has had HSV since before I was born and I was reminded how messed up stigma is because a registered nurse was not able to have a conversation about STI’s with her daughter before she became sexually active but instead at the age of 30, when let’s be honest it is waaay too late.
Here is the science bit of the blog post:
HSV I gives you cold sores, HSV II gives Genital Herpes which is basically the same thing.
You can contract HSV and never get symptoms, or you can get symptoms years after first contracting it.
Between 50% and 70% of the population are carrying HSV, 80% of those people don’t know they have it.
The virus is passed easily through skin to skin contact, even when no HSV symptoms are present.
Condoms do not protect against HSV.
Sexual health clinics do not routinely test for HSV because it is so common, they merely treat symptoms.
In most people, after an initial outbreak the virus will lay dormant, they might never have another outbreak in their lives.
For unlucky people who continue to have outbreaks, the virus can be managed with medication.
The only way to avoid it entirely is to not have sex at all.
In the end the results of the swab were negative but given the sciencey facts above, it doesn’t mean I don’t have it.
Loads of us do. So let’s stop calling it ‘The Herpes’. Let’s stop making it the butt of jokes. Let’s talk about it.