If I responded to this question with anything other than, of course I’d choose not to have genital herpes, you would think I’m lying. Not only would that response sound contrived, you’d stop reading and move along to a post that is actually realistic. However, I must warn you, there’s a huge BUT to my answer. You had to know that was coming, right? The deal is, if I could change only one thing about my past, genital herpes wouldn’t be my choice. If I could go back and change a couple things and take away my genital herpes, I’d do that too, because it’s a nuisance. However, I’d only take back having genital herpes if it didn’t erase all of the positive things that have come about as a result of having it. That is why I have to carefully answer a question like that, because answering requires a more detailed explanation than a simple yes or no affords.
Specifically, if I could take back anything I’ve done knowing that the related experiences would also change, I would actually take back something entirely different. I’ve lived with genital herpes for 14 years. In that time, I’ve learned how to have effective conversations with potential partners, I’ve learned that my STD does not define me, I’ve gained strength and open-mindedness, I’ve learned how to choose trustworthy friendships and prosperous relationships, and I’ve become an advocate for those living with an STD and all people who have experienced adversity. Those lessons came with a lot – A LOT – of trial and error – emphasis on the error as well and were all a result of contracting herpes. Consequently, removing my herpes would make me a much less interesting individual and I’d be afraid that I’d still be the incredibly shallow and naïve person I once was.
The one thing I know I would change, however, comes as a direct result of how I handled myself once I contracted genital herpes. For example, I wasn’t always forthcoming with my partners when I should have been. There were a couple of people I engaged in sexual activities with that I did not tell I had an STD right away. If I could go back in time and let them know before putting them at risk, I would. I’m not certain whether they actually contracted genital herpes or not, but knowing I was irresponsible with my actions is something I will always carry with me. I’ve since forgiven myself, but forgiveness does not take away the knowledge that I may have greatly impacted someone’s life.
While taking away my genital herpes would also have alleviated those issues, I don’t think I would have learned sexual health responsibility without having herpes myself. Even though I previously used condoms with sexual partners, I did not have the conversations I needed to have about STI testing, number of partners, exclusivity, etc. Being completely responsible with one’s sexual health entails having those awkward conversations before engaging in sexual activities, trying to limit number of partners, encouraging a monogamous relationship, using protection correctly and consistently, and also getting tested regularly. I learned all of that AFTER contracting herpes. I was sure using condoms and being on birth control was all I needed. Because herpes (both kinds) are transferred via skin-to-skin contact, condoms don’t always do the trick. Obviously, I learned that the hard way. J
The deal is, having herpes is not always delightful – that’s kind of a no-brainer. But I have managed to take what some find a debilitating and greatly limiting condition and turn it into something incredibly positive. The empowerment I’ve experienced in being honest with partners now, sharing my story with others, and growing through all of it is something I couldn’t possibly wish to replace. Some of the initial stigma I even thought was true about myself has been negated by my successes elsewhere and the things I’ve accomplished despite having contracted a very taboo infection. I’d love to change some of my reckless behavior, and if I could keep all of the marvelous things I’ve learned and the self-assurance I now have, sure, I’d also get rid of the stupid blisters I deal with every few months. Otherwise, I’ll keep my herpes and all the good things too. Either way, it’s actually been much more of a positive experience than anyone would ever imagine and I think the stigma surrounding STDs, in general, is just a bit of hype and fear. No one wants a bodily issue that requires extra care, but at the end of the day, that’s all it really is.
Jenelle Marie is the administrator of The STD Project (www.thestdproject.com) – an award-winning independent website geared toward removing the stigma associated with contracting an STD and living with an STD by encouraging education through story-telling and resource recommendations. You can also find The STD Project on Facebook and Twitter.