The STD We Snicker At

Jon Fortenbury resents herpes’ reputation as both shameful condition and punchline:

Herpes has a unique stigma among sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS is stigmatized, but few laugh at people who have it because it’s a serious illness. HPV can lead to cancer, on occasion, and women get tested TIme Herpesregularly for it, making it no joke to most. Chlamydia, syphilis, crabs, scabies, and gonorrhea are sometimes the target of jokes, but these STDS are typically curable, so people won’t have to endure the annoyance for too long. Genital herpes, though, isn’t curable, is thought of as a disease only the promiscuous and cheating-types get, and is a popular joke topic.

Despite the fact that herpes has been around since the time of the Ancient Greeks, according to Stanford University, the widespread stigma seems to be just decades old. …  [F]ilm and TV no doubt keep it alive. Leah Berkenwald pointed out in an article for Scarleteen that almost every Judd Apatow movie includes a joke about herpes. Living Sphere has a large list of films, TV shows, and books that mention genital herpes, with many of the films and TV shows poking fun at people who have it. Sometimes the jokes directly suggest people with genital herpes are whores or cheaters or they indirectly make the connection, such as the classic Hangover line, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for herpes.”

Update from a reader:

As your friend Dan Savage would attest, herpes is shameful only to Americans. Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak. Americans attend support groups for herpes, can you imagine an American treating herpes like the flu, something you have, not something to be ashamed of?


Reader and subscriber here. In your post about herpes, you quoted another reader who argued that “herpes” is not a shameful condition in Europe, since “Justine Henin, when she was the #1 tennis player on the world, was asked why she lost a match. She very matter of factly said she had a herpes outbreak.”

A common misconception. Americans call herpes on the lips ‘cold sores’, reserving the term ‘herpes’ only for genital herpes. Most Europeans don’t – they call the lip blisters herpes too, since they’re caused by a herpes virus. So Henin was almost certainly talking about an outbreak of cold sores, not a sexually-transmitted disease. If you type the word ‘herpes’ into European google, you will get 98% links to cold-sore treatments. I can assure you that the attitude toward genital herpes in Europe is not very different from that in America.

(Image from Time’s Aug. 2, 1982 issue)