We’ve all read that essay: the woman who gets herpes because she caves to temptation just once and has a regrettable one-night-stand, but goes on to find happiness because she meets that one man who loves her just as she is, STI and all. You can find it in glossy women’s magazines and anonymous chat rooms across the web, the inspirational packing popcorn of sex writing. It’s the Boyfriend Narrative, and it needs to die.
I avoid the Boyfriend Narrative in my writing for a number of reasons. I haven’t been in a monogamous relationship with a man since I started writing publicly about herpes, and I don’t like writing about past partners who are uncomfortable with the attention. It’s also just not that interesting a story to me. I’d rather explore the impact herpes has on casual sex or open relationships precisely because those topics are harder to find in mainstream publications.
But that doesn’t stop other journalists from finding a way to put me into the Boyfriend Narrative. I regularly have to correct journalists who write about my boyfriend, who does not currently exist. Their impulse to include my relationship status is frustrating. I do not face herpes stigma much in the traditional sense: I don’t get rejected for it, coworkers do not think less of me for it, and I do not have to hide it for fear of discrimination in the typical ways. I face herpes stigma in the simplifying —and commodifying—of who I am. Journalists who mention my fictional boyfriend make me safer than the woman who fucks whoever she wants.
I’m going to use the term “boyfriend” in this post because that’s the language I see used again and again in herpes journalism. That being said, I am neither straight nor currently monogamous. My use of the word “boyfriend” is not meant to erase that part of my identity or the experiences of queer and non-binary folks who also get herpes and don’t see themselves represented in how we talk about STIs.
Here are the four reasons why the popularity of the Boyfriend Narrative is disappointing and harmful:
1. There are other ways to get better. It is narrow-minded, falsely romantic, and heteronormative to assert that the only way someone with herpes can be okay is if they enter a (straight, monogamous) relationship. That story discounts the importance of larger support networks of friends and family, not to mention the roles that activism, self-expression and therapy can play in recovering. For survivors of dating violence and sexual assault, finding a new partner may be the last thing they want or need in their life after getting diagnosed. “I Healed From My Herpes Diagnosis With A Little Help From My Friends” may not make a sexy headline, but it’s far more often the reality. And honestly, it’s far more often successful in the long run. Pinning your recovery and your self-worth on the validation of one person is a great way to place too much pressure on the relationship, and to fall apart once it’s over.
It’s true that entering a loving, stable relationship a few months after I got diagnosed allowed me to realize that life went on post-herpes. But what really made me okay, what made me turn herpes into more than just a livable reality but even a strength, was talking about it. I constantly talked about it. I wrote papers for English seminars about the lack of herpes narratives in the memoir genre. I did a presentation on STI stigma for a psychology class. I also took my sexuality back with the help of a fuck buddy who liked me and was attracted to me but didn’t want to date me (for reasons unrelated to my STI). And I relied heavily on my best friends, who taught me what this magical thing called “self care” was and baked me cookies and helped me untangle the knot of self-doubt and fear that was my identity. Had I not met the man who went on to be my first serious boyfriend post-diagnosis, I would have been fine. My story would just be different.
2. The sheer fact of having a boyfriend does not make getting diagnosed with herpes easier. That depends on the boyfriend. I was dating someone when I got diagnosed and having him in my life made being okay borderline impossible. It will never be clear if our relationship became abusive because of my diagnosis or if it would have eventually anyway, but he was a profoundly negative influence on my happiness and mental health. He made my diagnosis about him, and I spent more time babysitting his threats of self-harm than mending my broken psyche.
At the same time, I didn’t want to leave him because I had received the message loud and clear that I was lucky to have a boyfriend at all. He certainly told me that every day, but I heard it in the magazine articles and Tumblr posts and the voice of the nurse at my gynecologist who told me some day I would meet that “one special person” who would be willing to “overlook” my status. If I broke up with him, I would be alone. I didn’t want to be alone. So instead of taking care of myself, I put all of my energy into making him okay.
Herpes also introduces a new fear into even the best relationships: the chess piece that is the risk of transmission. A shitty boyfriend is now somehow a hero for staying with you. A kind boyfriend is now in danger of you. People who have had herpes for a while, or who date folks with who have had herpes for a while, are less likely to see transmission as one person’s responsibility—in other words, they’re less likely to introduce guilt and blame if herpes is transmitted. But for a newly diagnosed person, especially if they’re young, it’s much harder to understand herpes as a fact and not a personal flaw. In my next relationship, I was terrified of giving herpes to my boyfriend even though he was pretty unfazed by the possibility. Guilt, distrust and fear can complicate a relationship, and while some couples take herpes in stride and become stronger, some just can’t. Even good people can be bad partners when you’re going through something they don’t understand.
The narrative that a boyfriend is the only route to happiness with herpes—and its dark undercurrent, that you’re lucky to find one at all—facilitates unhealthy relationship dynamics. It traps herpes positive individuals in relationships that are dangerous to them by telling them they should be grateful they are “loved” at all.
3. Even if you find a good boyfriend, that doesn’t mean stigma is over. The Boyfriend Narrative presents an individual solution to a problem that is systemic—it challenges and demands nothing of a society that desperately needs to change. The Boyfriend Narrative suggests that all the suffering and self-loathing a person endures when they get diagnosed is okay because it all works out in the end, or that it’s their fault they feel so terrible when there is no larger stigma. That’s why magazines, and medical professionals, and even coaches love the Boyfriend Narrative: it is apolitical and non-controversial. A boyfriend is a Band-Aid, a kiss on the forehead that reassures everything is going to be okay when the house is still burning down around you.
When I had a boyfriend, herpes stigma didn’t magically disappear. I still had to worry about new doctors treating me differently when I told them I had herpes. I still had strangers calling me a disgusting whore on the Internet. I still heard herpes jokes in my favorite TV shows, only now I had a boy sitting next to me whose reaction I had to worry about too. I also had to worry about what his parents would think if they found out their son was dating someone with herpes, and if his friends gave him a hard time about me behind my back. My sexuality was still considered a risk to public health, and I was understood as lucky for finding a partner who was “so brave” and “open-minded.” In the eyes of less generous strangers, particularly Internet commenters, he was “irresponsible” and “desperate.” The world was still against me, and now it was against him too.
Whether or not I have a boyfriend also does nothing for the millions of other people in this world who have herpes and face stigma every day. That is because herpes stigma is a form of prejudice. It needs sustained and coordinated dismantling in the form of education, legislation, and noise—not an updated relationship status on Facebook. The Boyfriend Narrative can bring relief and hope to women who are terrified they will never be loved again—I get that, and I respect that. The only time I’ve talked about my wonderful ex-boyfriend was in my What’s Underneath video, and the reaction people had to seeing me break down and cry as I recounted how meaningful that relationship was goes to show that those stories do have a value. But they don’t do enough alone. And they can do just as much harm if we’re not careful.
4. Most importantly, the Boyfriend Narrative is often about redemption and respectability politics. I’ve seen journalists include that I have a boyfriend as a way to suggest everything in my life is okay now. Sometimes they assume I have a boyfriend because I mention my partner, as in my casual sexual partner. Other times they assume I’m still with an ex who I’ve discussed in other interviews. Regardless of why they’re confused, it makes me seem safer—Girl Next Door Ella with a boyfriend is a lot less threatening to readers than erotica writing, non-monogamous, queer Ella. Maybe these journalists think they’re subverting stereotypes about who gets herpes by suggesting that it can even happen to nice, domesticated girls. Or maybe they’re saying that there is a happy ending with herpes, and it falls safely within the traditional happy ending all women are supposed to want: a boyfriend, a husband, a family.
In reality, the Boyfriend Narrative suggests that some people with herpes deserve our sympathy—the monogamous ones, the traditional ones—and that some don’t. Journalists and editors may think they’re writing for the scared, newly diagnosed individual who wants to be told everything is okay, but they’re turning their backs on anyone who isn’t straight, anyone who isn’t monogamous, anyone who wants to live their life however they want to. And the Boyfriend Narrative makes anyone who doesn’t fit within its Barbie Dream House romance seem broken, sad or even dangerous. It is the slut shaming we wrap like a pretty pink bow around herpes stigma, and I’m bored of it.
So journalists, stop asking me if I have a boyfriend. I don’t need your redemption.
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