It’s Toronto International Film Festival time, which means our fair city is bustling with celebrities and Hollywood industry folk. It’s the kind of atmosphere that just screams, “Baby, we’ve just got tonight… so leave your iPhone by the door so I can see you’re not filming this for TMZ.” While it’s exciting to imagine hooking up with somebody famous, disgustingly rich, intoxicatingly powerful, or at the very least a friend of a friend of Dave Franco’s manager, keep in mind that money and fame can buy a lot of things (including love) but a cure for herpes isn’t one of them.
Sure, every time celebs go outside they’re greeted with an all-you-can-eat sex buffet of fans, and once upon a time many of us thought they deserved herpes. But then Tinder proved civilians are just as horny and slutty as the rich and famous, and suddenly herpes united us all in our desire to have one-night stands in the face of a prominent, highly contagious, and incurable disease.
Ask anyone with an online dating app what he or she’s most afraid of, and the answer you’ll get is “public speaking,” but he or she really means “herpes.” We’re so scared of it, we refuse to give it a cute nickname like “the clap” or “syph” in case being cheeky jinxes us all. To alleviate casual sex blues in time for TIFF, I asked my friend, the STI doctor (who provided me with illuminating tidbits for my recent story, “Yes, Toronto, There Is A Syphilis Comeback“), out for coffee to get the lowdown on herpes. It turns out my plans to decrease my concerns has actually only made me more confused, bewildered, and unsure about what to do with my Tinder profile. Here are 7 horrifying things about herpes you really need to know – because recurring nightmares are still better than recurring genital sores.
Herpes is infectious even when a person isn’t flaring up. Say it with me now, “Sh*t, seriously?!”
So you’re naked and you’re giving your future one-night stand’s genitals a once over. The pre-game check is common practice and the reason why so many of us pretend to prefer sex with the lights on. The genitals in question look clean and pristine. Hell, they even look freshly groomed by one of those ‘spensive aestheticians the Real Housewives keep on leashes. You’re even doing a sexy foreplay routine that has the added bonus of putting your face right up in your lover’s junk so you can secretly examine it for even the slightest signs of inflammation.
Once your inner doctor seems satisfied with your partner’s lack of sores and red bumps, that means the coast is clear to go Discovery Channel mammal on each other, right? Not so fast. Even genitals with complexions more radiant than Charlize Theron can give you the gift that keeps on giving: herpes. Why? Because people who are infected with genital herpes shed the virus even when they don’t have red and bumpy lesions cropping up. Sores are just the STI version of a Scarlet Letter – a visible signifier that shames some, but not all, people who qualify. Even when an infected person is sore-free, the disease still lives in nerves at all times. Genitals have a lot of nerves, which run right up to the skin’s surface, where herpes can spread without the help of a protruding sore.
A person with genital herpes is contagious approximately 10 percent of the time regardless of flare-ups
As mentioned above, herpes lives in a person’s nerves, but sores get all the credit for housing the disease like they’re tents on the campground that is your crotch for the traveling gypsy that is genital herpes. Lesions are actually more like herpes pop-up shops, but your nerves are the herpes factory. Some people never flare up, but every infected person is contagious approximately 10 percent of the year, when they can spread the disease with simple skin-to-skin contact. It’s called asymptomatic shedding, and it just made you reconsider celibacy, didn’t it?
Daily herpes medication might be your only ticket to partial sanctuary
While some infected people never experience a single outbreak, others are less lucky, and the first flare up is usually the most painful. The odd person is even hospitalized for herpes’ debutante ball because the sores can cause so much swelling and pain that the only way to pee is with the help of a catheter. Some people only ever get the initial painful outbreak and then remain asymptomatic for the rest of their lives, while others break out as frequently as six or seven times a year. It’s like drawing the short stick and then drawing it again – double lose!
If you’re one of those unfortunates, it’s a sign you need medication. Those who flare up infrequently can take pills during outbreaks to reduce the length of symptoms, but people prone to multiple flare-ups need everyday meds to keep outbreaks at bay. It costs about $40 a month, not to mention the hassle of finding a pharmacy where the pharmacists aren’t total dreamboats. That’s harder than it sounds. Pharmacists are up there with dentists in sexiness levels because there’s something about being too hot for med school, but I digress… back to herpes…
You’ve probably slept with lots of people who have genital herpes and you’ll do it again
Medical studies suggest (and this is info from my STI doctor friend and not some random survey I looked up to scare you) that as many as 1 in 4 people could have genital herpes. It’s impossible for doctors to know for sure because it’s a tricky disease for even the medical elite to charter, which means we’ll probably solve global warming before we cure herpes. So where does that leave us?
Risking herpes in the name of sex until the end of time or at least man, and chances are you’ve already taken a bullet or 10 in this game of genital Russian roulette. If approximately 25 percent of the world has herpes, you’ve almost definitely slept with at least one person infected with it if your sex partner head count is 4 or more. Just because none of your past sex partners have confessed to having herpes doesn’t mean they aren’t either lying or living in denial with very painful ingrown hairs that recur.
Confusing herpes for an ingrown hair can lead to big problems
Herpes sores are actually called vesicles, and they look like chicken pox or pimples but, instead of being filled with white pus, they’re filled with clear fluid. You might think, I’ll pop it to make sure there’s no pus or pube before I bother my doctor. Unfortunately, being the king of wishful thinking only gives herpes the opportunity to expand its kingdom. If you pop the sucker looking for a downward-turned hair, you put yourself at risk of secondary bacterial infections and scarring, as well as spreading the original infection. The lesson to be learned here is go to a doctor when herpes seems like an option for your bumpy woes. It’s far less embarrassing to confuse an ingrown hair for herpes than it is to show a doctor the denial-fueled havoc you wreaked on your own genitals.
Herpes hurts like a b*tch and there’s not much you can do about it
Herpes sores hurt because they’re actually causing nerve damage, infecting the cells in your nerves and killing them. Topical creams don’t really help the itch of the sitch either. You’ll just have to ride out the 1 to 2-week period in which your genitals feel like a self-destructing abandoned war zone with detonating landmines left behind by former occupants of the territory. Think of your genitals as Chernobyl: it’s gonna be a while before anyone wants to settle in or drop by for a visit.
Condoms are slightly more effective than a rain dance, and they’re all you’ve got
A condom can be about as useful in preventing herpes as a bulletproof vest would be in front of a firing squad. And as terrifying as that is, we’re all still going to get back out there and play Russian roulette with our genitals. As unsexy as it might seem, I suggest just having the “disease talk” before having sex with someone new. Sure, maybe the person you’re with will be one of those people who’s infected and doesn’t know it, but you’ll be able to gauge a lot about a person’s sexual health responsibility levels based on how he or she responds to the topic and shares information. I tend to find people who can speak maturely and comfortably also tend to be the most responsible for their sexual health, but maybe that’s just me. Worrying about killing the mood is just a little too 60s for my taste. Besides, we’ve got way more to worry about these days than just syph.