The Social Stigma

The Good

What could possibly be the good side of the Herpes stigma?

The negative social stigma attached to Herpes and other STIs actually does have some good impact in that it encourages people to practice ‘Safer Sex’ in order to avoid contracting it. It can also have a positive benefit on people’s attitudes towards promiscuity and casual sex, and can encourage people to seek treatment in order to prevent spreading the virus and to control symptoms to avoid discovery.


The Bad

The perception that only promiscuous people catch Herpes, that it is a ‘dirty disease’ which reduces a persons value and worth, that you can practically catch it simply by going near an infected person, and that since it is incurable it is also untreatable – all these misconceptions contribute to the negative stigma associated with having the Herpes virus.

Sources of Stigma

“Sex, not Herpes, is a central aspect of herpes related stigma.” J. Dennis Fortenberry

Because Herpes is often transmitted sexually people can feel personally responsible for having it, unlike an inherited condition or an air borne virus like the flu. People may feel they have failed, or let down their family by contracting the virus. The commonly held belief that sexually promiscuous people deserve to catch an STI can transform into a belief that if a person does catch an STI then they must be sexually promiscuous, irrelevant of their actual sexual history.

Ignorance, myths and misinformation abound. Despite copious sex education programs and media promotions, many people are still ignorant of the facts, unaware that treatment is available or that it is possible to have a relatively normal life without passing on the virus or jeopardising all future relationships.

Repercussions of Stigma

Dealing with the negative social stigma is probably one of the hardest aspects of coming to terms with having the Herpes virus for life. The discomfort caused by the physical symptoms is often extremely minimal in comparison to the emotional fallout from contracting Herpes.

Some of the common emotions experienced by people with Herpes are shame, anger, fear, embarrassment, depression and betrayal. Many people feel that it severely impacts on their desirability and value as a person, resulting in lowered self-esteem, self-confidence and even a withdrawal from life.

“Basically it has stopped me from looking for a partner. I have no desire to go out to social gatherings, in meeting new people, or even continuing existing relationships with friends for fear of them finding out and ostracizing me.”

Many people are so afraid of being judged or discriminated against because they have the Herpes virus that they actively work hard to conceal the symptoms from everyone they know. The added stress from the continual fear of exposure can lead to more outbreaks, which leads to more stress… and so the vicious cycle continues.

“I was so scared that someone would find out my nasty little secret that I endured the painful outbreaks for a year before seeking help, and even then I would drive an hour out of my way to have my prescriptions filled at a chemist in another suburb.”

Most people are not naturally secretive, they want to talk about themselves, their hopes, their feelings and their dreams. When they have a problem or some anxiety in their life they want to share that too. Having a secret you are afraid to share with your family and friends can place a great deal of emotional strain on a person and create distance in close relationships.

People without access to emotional support, either through friends, family, professional counselling, or a self-help / support group can feel isolated and alone. Often finally having the courage and opportunity to talk to someone about having Herpes can mark a turning point in a person’s acceptance of the virus.

Strategies for Coping with the Stigma

Personal strategies for dealing with the stigma may include:

  • Secrecy – concealing the truth from others, refraining from telling new partners; denial, including self-denial; passing the symptoms off as something else and not seeking professional medical assistance for an accurate diagnosis.
  • Withdrawal – deliberately avoiding social situations; emotional distance within a relationship; staying in a bad relationship believing there is no other alternative; not being willing to seek out potential new relationships.
  • Support – joining a self-help, support or social group, receiving and giving support; sharing stories and experiences; undertaking professional counselling or therapy.
  • Open acceptance – openly admitting to having the virus to family, friends and potential new partners; participating in information dissemination and education programs; encouraging and supporting others.

People may use one or a combination of several of these strategies, or yet others which have not been mentioned here. Some may on the surface appear to better options than others, however, individuals will make their own choices and these may change over time as they become more at ease with the virus.

Government bodies, health organisations, pharmaceutical companies and support groups utilise a number of strategies to combat the stigma, primarily based around education and information dissemination. The creation of educational resources, such as booklets, pamphlets, websites, radio and TV commercials aimed at educating and promoting familiarity with the Herpes virus are the result of a huge commitment to changing the public perception of the Herpes virus and more importantly, the people who have it.

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