We need to talk about herpes jokes. In particular, we need to talk about herpes jokes and Wesleyan, my dear flawed alma mater.
As my younger friends moved into their new dorms in Middletown this weekend, I searched tumblr for posts about STIs. I’m involved in tumblr’s sprawling sexual health support community and track the tags for herpes and HPV, two of the most common and most misunderstood sexualized illnesses. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a post from a Wesleyan publication in the herpes tag. Posted by The Wesleyan Ampersand, Wes’s satire publication, the word search below was sandwiched between pained requests for support from the recently diagnosed. The caption read “Check it out, Froshies! The first two words you see in the box above will DEFINE your freshman year experience. Let destiny decide your future…” In bold, appearing twice, is “HERPES.” It is the only actual word that appears in the word search.
I contacted the staff of the Ampersand with my concerns (discussed below) and they graciously apologized and removed the post from tumblr. But unfortunately the word search also appears in the orientation issue of the biweekly campus-wide student newspaper The Wesleyan Argus, where hundreds of newbie Wes kids and the rest of the student body have already devoured it over brunch. The damage has been done, and I’m an alumna with a blog about representation of sexualized illnesses. So here’s my reality check:
Herpes is actually a problem at Wesleyan. Like, a shockingly huge problem. For a campus that practically throws condoms and dental dams at its students, STIs spread through the student body in waves. It’s pretty easy to track when chlamydia and syphilis hit because of the outpouring of rage and finger-pointing on the ACB (the Anonymous Confessions Board). But herpes is different: it is incurable, often asymptomatic, and easily spread in the absence of a barrier method when the virus is active. Herpes can be transmitted during oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and its two major strains (HSV1 and HSV2) can both lead to oral or genital outbreaks depending on the site of transmission. Oral herpes is what causes cold sores. You get cold sores? Congrats, you have herpes.
One strain in particular, HSV1, has been on the rise in recent years at Wesleyan and in the United States in general. HSV1 is usually associated with oral herpes but can also cause genital herpes. Genital HSV1 is mild and often goes undiagnosed—a person might have one outbreak and then never have another for the rest of their life. And genital HSV1 is most often caused when someone with oral HSV1 performs oral sex on their partner while they have or are developing a cold sore. Statistically, it is much easier for women to be transmitted to than men.
Here’s a fluke of sexual egalitarianism: more women are receiving oral sex from their male partners (yay!) and thus being exposed to herpes (oh no!). The fact that most hetero-people I know do not use protection of any form during oral sex makes this an even bigger problem. I regularly have to explain to friends what a dental dam even is.
I spoke to one of the nurse practitioners at Davidson Health Center during my senior year about the insane STI stigma at Wesleyan and was informed that herpes has become an issue for freshmen girls in particular. They arrive at Wesleyan, enter a sexual relationship, both parties get tested for the most common STIs at Davidson (a test that does not include herpes unless specifically requested), get their negative results, start having unprotected sex, and BAM. They have a genital herpes outbreak.
But let me be very clear about something: herpes is not the problem. Well yes, herpes is a problem, but as far as viruses go it’s a pretty minor skin condition that does not impact the lives of its hosts much. The stigma is the problem. The lack of education is the problem. Even, and perhaps especially, at Wesleyan, an institution that prides itself on consent, communication, and open sexuality. Activism around sexualized illnesses does not exist at Wesleyan, a community that otherwise loves to discuss the undiscussed. The shame surrounding sexual health is deeply rooted and deeply felt, and this is a conversation that simply doesn’t happen.
And thus herpes jokes like this one are part of the problem too. Because there is nothing about this word search that is a joke. For many of the class of 2018 it is true: contracting herpes will define their freshman year. Those freshmen deserve support, not judgment or mockery. A conversation needs to happen at Wesleyan about STI stigma, and I dream of a day when editors of campus publications will think twice before an issue goes to press about what jokes have the capacity to do harm. It’s something I prioritized during my two years as the editor-in-chief of Unlocked, Wesleyan’s sexuality magazine, and it’s an issue I worked to raise awareness of during my senior year.
I always skimmed the Argus in the waiting room at Davidson Health Center. If I were eighteen years old and read this word search as I waited to see a doctor about my genital herpes outbreak, I’d feel pretty fucking unwelcome at Wesleyan. I think we can all agree that’s unfortunate. Let’s reserve the Ampersand for photoshopping President Roth’s head onto bikini models, its true contribution to campus culture.