By Emily Depasse
Three Mondays ago, the click-clacking of my nude pumps echoed throughout Maggs Gym. I returned to campus as a guest speaker in a health course focused on chronic and communicable diseases. I have presented myself and my story in front of friends, family members and in middle school sexuality classes, but never to students in a college setting. I was unsure of how they would respond. Upon receiving some negative remarks from extended family members a few days prior, this speech became increasingly significant to me on a personal level. Needless to say, I was nervous.
College is often seen as a time of independence and exploration of self—including one’s sexual identity. The average American loses his or her virginity around age 17, but herpes exposure often happens much sooner than that. You can contract herpes from a kiss from a family member as a child. It is estimated that 67 percent of the world population carries HSV-1, the strain of herpes that is most likely to cause cold sores. Over the last several years, there has been an increase in oral-to-genital transmission of the herpes virus. When engaging in oral sex, one’s cold sores can potentially cause a genital presentation of HSV-1. While this strain typically prefers to take residence in the mouth, it sometimes decides to nest in the south. When we are in the heat of the moment with someone at a house party, in our dorm room or at Brew, we kiss. A lot. How many of those who have cold sores feel a need to disclose to their partners? How many of those with cold sores even know and identify that they have a strain of the herpes virus? Or that they may transmit that virus to their partners during oral sex, even if an outbreak is not present?
“Cold sore” provides a safety net. It helps fulfill society’s need to conceal the “dirtiness” of the herpes virus. The terms are interchangeable, but we choose to keep and maintain a distance between them. Unfortunately, the linguistic difference between cold sores and herpes also prevents disclosure from happening, which is likely a reason for the increase in oral-to-genital HSV-1 transmission.
The reality is that we all will come into contact with the herpes virus at some point during our lives. My goal in highlighting this is not to instill fear, but to reach a level of awareness and education. I believe that one potential way to remove the shameful stigma of herpes is for those who have experienced a cold sore to talk about it. Start the conversation with yourself by replacing “cold sore” with herpes just to see how it feels. A word should not make anyone inferior, but words are powerful and so are the stigmas attached to them. How did it make you feel? Although it is easier to discuss sexuality in this time, our language reveals there is still a long road ahead of us.
After finishing my lecture at Salisbury, I was shocked at one of the responses I received. A young man approached me afterword and thanked me. He shared that my presentation caused him to critically think and reevaluate how he viewed sexually transmitted diseases and infections. A smile grew across my face. As I exited the gym with my Rise Up cappuccino in hand, I strutted toward the new Academic Commons with tears in the corners of my eyes. Most of my interaction is virtual, so to be in the presence of critical thought, to see the effect of sharing my vulnerability, is not something I experience every day. This is the magic in sharing your story.