A few days ago news broke that Usher has herpes. The internet went wild. Jokes, online hate and uniformed opinions made up about 75% of my timeline and I’ve been wondering how to write this blog post ever since.
Usher’s case acts as the perfect example of the way that STIs are stigmatised and the way that herpes specifically is blown massively out of proportion. His name was being mentioned in tweets that also discussed R-Kelly, alleged rapist and paedophile, literally because he’s contracted a virus. Had it been almost any other kind of virus his situation would probably warrant sympathy. In fact, herpes highlights the way that adding sex into the equation completely changes public opinion. You get cold sores (HSV1)? Aw that sucks, but it’s totally normal! You have genital herpes (HSV2)? That’s disgusting and irresponsible. They are literally two strains of the same virus! 70% of the population carries that virus, although many remain undiagnosed! Both can be painful, both can be unsightly during outbreaks and both remain in your system for the whole of your life. And yet, because one of them happens to be contracted on the genitals as opposed to the mouth, it carries a huge stigma. Because one is transferred during sex it becomes newsworthy.
Now, that’s not to say that I think Usher has been a saint in all of this in any way. If the allegations are true that he had unprotected sex with a woman without telling her his status, then he’s taken part in something I could never condone. But, without excusing such behaviour, it’s important to question why. Honestly, after the response the news has had it’s not hard to understand why people are hesitant to share that they have herpes.
Unfortunately, because of the stigma surrounding it (and STIs more widely), it becomes considerably more difficult to get factual information out there without people accusing you of encouraging the spread of STIs and undermining the importance of protecting yourself against them. With countless people every year in the UK alone getting diagnosed, I can’t help but imagine how terrifying that must be when your only knowledge of it is what you saw on Twitter about Usher. Online conversation filled with sex-shaming rhetoric and uninformed statements can leave people feeling unbelievably alone, when in reality they are in the same boat as an estimated 1/6 of young people, whether the rest of us have been diagnosed or not.
The more that people try to close down serious conversations about herpes, the larger the stigma grows. Being diagnosed doesn’t immediately mean that someone has slept with a lot of people (and if they have it’s literally none of your business). It doesn’t mean that someone has been irresponsible. In fact, herpes can spread even if you use a condom, though it does significantly lower your chances, and it isn’t tested for in a routine GUM Clinic appointments. Any sexually active person could have herpes without realising it and could even go undiagnosed for the whole of their life and never experience an outbreak. As Holly Cassell from witchcake.co.uk highlighted in what was one of the only remotely intelligent tweets I saw on the matter, there has been a lot of finger pointing from people who may very well have herpes themselves.
Luckily there are people out there who are trying to break down the stigma and tell people the facts instead of blown-out-of-proportion assumptions. Ella Dawson’s TED Talk on the way that STIs are perceived in society and the Herpes Viruses Association website are just two resources that are helping to counteract the online scaremongering.
Ultimately most of us carry the burden of STI stigma with us. I actually think that, for the most part, it’s a bigger problem than the STIs themselves. It’s up to us as individuals to change that by first getting rid of our own prejudices. That means taking the time to educate ourselves instead of jumping on Twitter to judge.
Herpes is extremely common. Positive conversation around it should be too.