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Savage Love



Hey, Faggot:

I have had cold sores--oral herpes--since I was in elementary school. I was told they were contagious and not to kiss anybody when I had an outbreak. By the time I was sexually active, I was informed by a very wise person that I could give someone genital herpes if I gave them oral sex during an outbreak or during my prodromal symptoms (when there's a strange ache and tingle, but no sore yet). So as long as I was symptom-free, I kissed, sucked off, and licked people to my heart's content, guilt-free.

Then I got genital herpes from oral sex with someone who didn't know cold sores were herpes and ignored his prodromal symptoms. When I was diagnosed, it was drummed into my head that I must inform my potential partner before we have sexual contact whether or not I am anywhere near an outbreak, or I am an evil, disease-spreading bitch. No one I have ever kissed or sucked off has ever freaked out when they saw a cold sore on my lip a month later. But as I understand it, if someone were to find out I have genital herpes after sleeping with me, I'd be in for it. I've had five breakouts in three years. I get no other symptoms (fever, swollen glands) that I've heard so much about (from people who don't have herpes). The supposed "public health announcements" on the radio and the Glaxo Wellcome commercial on TV constantly emphasize that this is an "incurable" disease. I don't think this accurately describes a few days a year of a mild burning sensation on my labia. I'm hardly suffering, so why should I be stigmatized as disease-ridden? Why aren't people as terrified of oral sex with people with cold sores, which I hear is 90 percent of the population?

So what do you think? Does sleeping with people (using a condom, of course) when I don't have any symptoms and not telling them of my "herpes status" make me a dishonest slut? --Not A Leper

Hey, NAL:

If people with herpes are lepers, then there are a whole lot of lepers running around out there. The Centers for Disease Control released a study a couple of weeks back--to much apocalyptic fanfare--showing that one in five Americans over the age of 12 has herpes, a 30 percent jump since the late 1970s. But, the study went on, most people with herpes don't know they have it. Why? Well, fewer than 10 percent of folks with the herpes virus have ever had an outbreak; most infected folks have no symptoms at all--no sores. So herpes, while a bummer, ain't the end of the world. The way people carry on, you'd think the CDC discovered that one in five Americans is carrying the Ebola virus.

Like you, NAL, most folks with herpes who do get sores get them only very occasionally. For those with more severe cases--six or more outbreaks a year--there's a drug (acyclovir) that can help prevent outbreaks and lessen the severity of outbreaks when they do happen. This is hardly The Hot Zone stuff. People with herpes should be concerned about the fact that the presence of sores can make it easier for you to catch more serious STDs--like HIV--and that a severe case can complicate pregnancy, but they shouldn't be throwing themselves under buses.

While herpes is incurable--hence the freaked-out press--it ain't Ebola and it ain't HIV. Hell, it ain't hardly even "herpes" as we've been led to understand and fear it. Yes, it's better to not have herpes than to have herpes, but what are you gonna do? Never have sex? Never kiss people? Not even the religious use of condoms can protect you 100 percent, as herpes sores aren't always in places protected by condoms, and sores don't have to be present for a person with herpes to be infectious (as you discovered, NAL).

That said, NAL, I do think you should tell your partners before you go to bed with them that you have herpes. Explain how infrequently you have outbreaks, and what a minor deal they are when they do occur. If your partner's ignorant about the disease, clue him in. If he walks, well, better he should walk before you have sex than run afterward. If a guy is that terrified of dumb old herpes, you don't want to be having sex with him anyway, do you?

Hey, Faggot:

I'm writing about the nation's fastest-spreading STD: genital warts. Genital warts is a virus (HPV). It doesn't go away when the warts are removed. The virus stays in your blood and is transmissible in the same ways as HIV. There are over 40 different strains of genital warts, and you can't ever screw someone who has had a wart without using latex. This disease sucks. It makes you feel like a diseased fuck, which is the goddamned truth. As you women know, as soon as you get turned on, your juices start flowing. Casual sex and even casual make-outs are out of the question if you have genital warts. Someone could contract the virus from you just by touching your juices. I'm a good person, and I'm sexy, and men and women still risk their sexual health to be with me--and no one I've been safely intimate with has contracted the virus from me. But try not to get it in the first place. --Wish I'd Known

Hey, WIK:

Geez, maybe living in dread of what for so many years seemed like inevitable HIV infection and an early death has made me jaded about herpes and warts. Somehow I've managed to avoid exposing myself to any of these three--herpes, warts, HIV--despite the fact that I've had sex on numerous occasions with men who had one or all of the above.

I had a boyfriend for years who had warts. He got one wart when we were together, had it burned off, and he never got another one--and I never got infected. Same with herpes and HIV. If you take reasonable precautions, and you have a partner you can communicate with openly, odds are you won't get infected.

But, WIK, the type of shame you're carrying around about warts--warts "makes you feel like a diseased fuck, which is the goddamned truth"--is the reason so many people with STDs have a hard time being open with their partners. If my boyfriend who had warts was afraid to tell me about it for fear I would think he was a diseased fuck, he might have let me take risks that could have resulted in my becoming infected. Thankfully, he wasn't afraid to talk to me, I didn't freak out, we took precautions, and I didn't get infected. Ta da! See how that works?

If we react with hysteria to what are really minor problems (provided we're getting proper medical attention), then we are creating strong disincentives for people with herpes, like NAL, or warts, like you, to be open. Openness facilitates safer choices--choices that can help stop the spread of these diseases--and we can encourage openness by being a bit less hysterical.

PS: It is especially important that women see their docs for regular Pap smears and speculum look-sees, as herpes or warts left untreated can have very serious consequences for women including, in the case of warts, cervical cancer. See your puss doc regularly, ladies.

Send questions to Savage Love, Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611.

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