There are no positive stories in media about people with herpes. We get punchlines in bro comedy movies like The Hangover. We get cautionary tale stories in television shows like The Mindy Project. Every so often there will be an “empowering” personal story in a women’s magazine (my bad, y’all), but there are no sympathetic, positive, reassuring representations of us in pop culture anywhere, whatsoever. There is no YA book about getting diagnosed or indie film about living with an STI. We are degraded or we invisible, and that lack of presence leaves us woefully alone in our fight to figure out how to live our lives with a common but stigmatized virus. It puts us at risk of ignorance, rejection and self-harm.
(There’s that arc on GIRLS where Hannah gets HPV, but then it never comes up again and Lena Dunham isn’t the hero we need, so let’s forget that ever happened.)
I cried when I watched “The Second First Time.” Its writer had approached me after reading my essay “How I Lost My Post-Herpes Virginity” and said he wanted to write a short film about my experience. I answered some questions for him, but I didn’t know what to expect from the final result.
What I got was an honest, funny, sweet little film about an experience I still remember so clearly: trying to have sex with someone after getting diagnosed and not believing that he could really want me. Struggling to feel desirable, to be desired, to desire. Not knowing how to let down that last wall and figure out how to be sexual again.
I didn’t just cry while watching; I choked on my own shock and relief. I felt valid and human and normal, not like some freak who had fucked up and lost her right to exist in media. I felt loved and understood and seen. That is the power of being represented for the first time. It’s no small thing.
People living with herpes are real, there are millions of us, and we deserve to see our experiences in film and literature. Here’s a start.
About the film:
DIR. by Miranda Gontz
WR. by Cameron Carpenter
DP. Anthony Newen
EDITOR Miranda Gontz
Starring Kayla Van de Bunt and Gabe Greenspan