What's So Funny About Herpes?

by Cristen Conger

Honestly, I forgot about the joke as soon as I made it. It was typical of the random riffs and banter that happen whenever my podcast co-host, Caroline, and I record together. That particular Unladylike episode was about women, bicycling and street harassment. As we were wrapping up, I offered a fake tip for catcall-proofing yourself: “Tell a stranger about your STD!” I cackled into the podcast mic and segued into credits.

But for an Unladylike listener named Kat, the quip cut.

“The emotional and psychological distress of these diagnoses are often far harder to deal with than the actual symptoms,” she wrote to the Unladylike inbox soon after the episode aired. “It’s always frustrating to me when the public dialogue on STDs even from well meaning sources such as yourselves tends to be a joke at the expense of the diseased or a manual on how to avoid contacting it.”

Kat explained that she’d been diagnosed with genital herpes and HPV five years ago and remains hypervigilant about her diet, immune system, and stress levels to manage it. But she emphasized that her post-diagnosis mental health was far harder to care for than any physical symptoms and lifestyle changes she had to make.

It’s not just a Kat thing, either. A 2004 study in The New England Journal of Medicine described the psychological impact of being diagnosed with herpes as “far more severe than the physical consequences.” Common side effects include “shock, anger, guilt, low self-esteem ... and can interfere substantially with relationships.” Meanwhile, I’m over here, a sex-positive feminist who knows that herpes’ incurability far from a death sentence, and yet, I didn’t think twice about making a little fun at STDs’ expense. So Caroline and I decided to turn my wrong thing said into something right and invite Kat on the show to tell us more.

“Once I got herpes, it was really liberating because, well, I’ve got this now and better go overcompensate enough,” she said. “And when you start living like that, treating yourself better and nurturing value in how you see yourself, it makes you realize that you deserve to take up space. You deserve to have just as good a life as anybody else because there’s a lot of people who’d tell you otherwise and you can’t believe the claptrap.”

Ignoring the herpes haters can be tough, though, when pop culture sees no problem with dropping h-bombs.

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“There are so many STD jokes — like, so many — and yet I didn’t realize how many until I actually got herpes and I’m like, ugh, I can’t watch Hulu anymore,” Kat told us in our interview. “You get used to them and you grin and bear it, and they still chafe a little.”

Take the Netflix comedy Lovesick, which is about a guy who learns he has gonorrhea and tracks down all the women he’s boned to let them know. Kat was not a fan. “[The] joke always seemed to be, ‘Well, at least it’s not herpes because there’s no cure for that shit!’ So, even when the show is about the stigma of sexually transmitted diseases, they still crack the herpes joke. Like, it’s so woven deep into our cultures. It’s absurd.”

More absurd is just how wildly over-stigmatized herpes became in American culture in the early 1980s. Before the AIDS epidemic captured widespread media attention, a reported rise in herpes among white, straight folks incited a frenzy of fear-mongering. Go figure. In 1982, a TIME magazine cover story called herpes “today’s scarlet letter” and framed the STD as some sort of biological backlash to the sexual revolution.

By the late 80s, herpes hysteria had cooled off, but the stigma still stings. So do the jokes. In fact, Kat says it’s the scarlet-H shame that keeps the punchlines coming.

“It’s easy to pretend that it’s a victimless crime because, what are you going to do? Are you going to actually, like, out yourself in the defense?” Kat says. “Like, everybody laughs. Even the people who feel uncomfortable with it. Even the ones who are like, yeah, that’s about me, and it sucks. But you don’t want to rock the boat, and it’s a pretty shitty boat. It should be capsized.”

One super easy way to help sink that shitty ship?

“Just assume that everybody has it and live accordingly,” Kat says. “Stop the herpes jokes, but more importantly realize that [having herpes] doesn’t change who they are.”

Besides, the statistical odds are that we all know at least one person living with herpes. And that person probably doesn’t even know they have it because it often hangs out asymptomatic and goes undiagnosed more than 80 percent of the time.

“It’s so common,” Kat says. “You can’t throw a phone in the subway and not hit at least four people with herpes.”

Now, that’s funny.

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