About 12 years ago, I contracted genital herpes. In Vegas. From a strip club bartender. Such a cliché, right? Yeah. Turns out Jeffrey Tambor’s character in The Hangover was right when he said, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit’ll come back with you.” In my situation, that line is funny because it’s true.
In case you’re interested, the sex that led to me getting herpes was amazing. I still remember her legs. She had great legs. And they apparently got around. Because a couple of days after our terrific romp, I began noticing sores and blisters on my cock. Which, over the next few days, grew into a nasty red cauliflower-type patch. At which point I floored my Toyota Camry to a free STD clinic and got some tests done. About a week later, it was confirmed: I had herpes simplex virus type 2… a.k.a., genital herpes.
My first thought was: Damn.
My second thought was: Shit fuck son of a bitch damn.
The truth is, the name “herpes” is actually the shittiest part about herpes. If it were called something else, like “Smileys,” it might not even be considered a bad thing at all.
But you know what? Every day since then hasn’t actually been too horrible. I started taking one pill a day (a generic version of Valtrex called Acyclovir) for my new life partner, herpes type 2—or what I now affectionately refer to as “The Deuce.” These daily pills weren’t hard to come by. I received full bottles of them from the clinic. (Each pill costs about a dollar.) And as long as I take this pill, I usually don’t have any outbreaks. The first year, I might have had a few outbreaks. But by year three or four, I was experiencing only one or two flare-ups a year. It’s been pretty much the same ever since then. Maybe even fewer.
The truth is, the name “herpes” is actually the shittiest part about herpes. From the time I was 10, I was warned about herpes like it was this awful, life-altering thing. I think we all were. So the name has come to mean some sort of hideous STD death sentence, where you’ll be quarantined from “normal” society and won’t be able to enjoy a regular social life—much less a regular sex life—like everyone else.
But if you have it, you know that the stigma is really the worst aspect of it. The actual disease is only a very minor inconvenience. If it were called something else, like “Smileys,” it might not even be considered a bad thing at all, just something a bit different. Like… having a cleft chin or something.
A lot of folks get worked up about the permanence of herpes. Yes, it is for life. But in the same way that breathing is for life. You take this pill once a day, and then nothing happens. And maybe once every six to nine months, you get an outbreak that lasts for about a week. For that week, you don’t have sex and you take a few more pills to help the outbreak go away quickly. That’s it. That’s the whole deal.
OK, you say, but aren’t there some terrible side effects associated with the daily pill? Not that I can tell. I think maybe it makes me a little drowsy. And I’m not even sure about that. That’s about it.
OK, you say, but don’t girls freak out when you tell them? Not really. If you explain it to women, I’ve found they’re actually pretty cool with it. Women are great like that. (Maybe men are worse at reacting to the news than women. I wouldn’t know. But I doubt it.) I can think of only a couple of cases in which, after telling a woman about my condition, she refused to have sex with me or even date me. And that’s over a 12-year period. (And neither of those girls was my soulmate. Trust me.)
Typically, you explain to your partner that they can only get it when there’s an outbreak—or in the one- or two-day period just before an outbreak, called “shedding,” when you feel your body burning a bit. And you tell them that you’ll never have sex with them during those times. Usually they shrug and say, “OK.” Sometimes they need a day or two to think about it, but they almost always come around.
Plus, the other thing to realize is, it’s not like the herpes population is this tiny minority. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about one out of six people in the U.S. aged 14 to 49 has genital herpes. In other words, a lot of people have it. Like, a lot. You just don’t realize it because the stigma is still quite negative so no one discusses it in public. (You’ve probably had sex with someone who has it, actually, and they didn’t tell you.)
So yeah, that’s my story about living with herpes. Honestly, it’s not that bad. Definitely not the end of the world. If you’re like me, you’ll find it’s something you rarely think about. And compared to everything else going on in your life—work, family, relationships, financial concerns, children and/or pets, the political state of the country—you’ll come to realize it’s the least of your problems.
Oh, and feel free to call it Smileys. Maybe it’ll catch on.
Editor’s note: Johns Hopkins has some pretty reliable FAQs on herpes. Check them out here.