The Leveller Article by Jonathon Braun
As the owner of the Lisgar Street sex, health, and education shop, Venus Envy, Shelley Taylor has been spreading messages of sex-positivity and talking openly and educationally about all things sex-related for years. Recently, Taylor has given others the opportunity to speak up. With her blogspot, “passtheherpes” that she says is “really more of a community forum” Taylor is encouraging discussion on a sex-related topic that often remains hushed and taboo: herpes.
Passtheherpes gives people the opportunity to discuss their experiences “living with herpes, contracting herpes, avoiding herpes, their experience with a partner who has herpes, whatever!” By creating this blog Taylor says that “I want people to see herpes as something normal. I want people with herpes to feel like they are one of many, many people in the same position so they don’t feel isolated and shameful about having herpes.”
When Taylor found out at the age of 18 that she had genital herpes, she was devastated. “I felt dirty and disgraceful and ugly and I believed that it meant I would be alone for the rest of my life”, she writes. Even after getting over the initial shock and becoming calmer about her diagnosis, Taylor still had feelings of isolation and of being damaged and unattractive. Living with herpes was something that Taylor kept to herself except when she disclosed to a potential intimate partner. Several years later, when being interviewed by a paper about the reasons she opened Venus Envy, Taylor officially “outed” herself as a person living with the virus. She told the journalist that one of the reasons she opened the store was because she had contracted herpes when she was young and “wanted to promote safer sex as well as sex positivity to reduce the chances of transmission but also minimize the shame that can come with having herpes and other STIs”. After this act of openness, Taylor was amazed by the response. She states that her coming forward like she did “seemed to make people feel better about their status”. In starting her “forum”, Taylor is allowing this act of openness to be even more wide-reaching and hoping to combat the stigma that is so prevalent towards the virus.
According to the sexual health resource website sexualityandu.ca, Genital Herpes is a sexually-transmitted-infection (STI) that is transmitted through skin to skin contact. There are two types of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV). HSV-1 typically results in cold sores, and HSV-2 typically affects the genitals. However, transmission can still occur from mouth to genitals and from genitals to mouth. The result of the infection can vary from person to person. Some people with genital herpes have no symptoms, while others may experience outbreaks of small blisters in the genital or anal area varying in severity and frequency. These blisters can often burst and lead to painful sores. In very rare cases, herpes can pose serious health risks. This risk is heightened for infants who acquire the virus during childbirth. However, in most cases “HSV-1 and HSV-2 are generally not considered a serious health risk”.
Although physical health risks may be limited, herpes can have a tremendous psychological affect on those infected. Even for Taylor whose work has helped fight the stigma associated with this virus, the stress is still there. She writes, “I still feel worried each time I put out into the world that I have herpes. I almost passed out before going live on the CBC to tell all of middle Canada about having herpes. It was very scary. So clearly I haven’t gotten entirely past the feelings of shame or embarrassment yet”. Taylor says that much of the stigma surrounding herpes stems from the fact that the virus is usually spread through sexual contact. “Consider that there’s almost no shame in having the exact same virus on your face, but when it’s on your genitals, it’s something completely different in how we relate to our bodies and how others relate to us.”
Originally printed in the Leveller, a Carleton University Publication