Herpes Stigma & Women of Color

I’ve had genital herpes for almost a year. While I’ve noticed many women combatting stigma by writing about their experiences living with the condition (myself included), I’ve also noticed we’re predominately white. Where are the stories from women of color with herpes? How has the stigma affected them?

In her essay Toward a Genealogy of Black Female Sexuality: The Problematic of Silence, feminist scholar Evelynn M. Hammonds discusses the history of the sexualization of the black female body. She writes: “Black feminist theorists — historians, literary critics, sociologists, legal scholars, and cultural critics — have drawn upon a specific historical narrative which purportedly describes the factors that have produced and maintained perceptions of black women’s sexuality (including their own). Three themes emerge in this history. First, the construction of the black female as the embodiment of sex and the attendant invisibility of black women as the unvoiced, unseen — everything that is not white. Secondly, the resistance of black women both to negative stereotypes of their sexuality and to the material effects of those stereotypes on black women’s lives. And, finally, the evolution of a ‘culture of dissemblance’ and a ‘politics of silence’ by black women on the issue of their sexuality.”

Hammonds discusses the representation of black women’s sexuality from the 19th century to the 1990s. She starts with Sarah Baartman and ends by talking about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. “Silence, erasure, and the use of images of immoral sexuality abound in narratives about the experiences of black women with AIDS. Their voices are not heard in discussions of AIDS while intimate details of their lives are exposed to justify their victimization.” I feel this quote can apply to herpes, too, since there is very little written about how women of color deal with STI stigma.

One woman of color who has written about her experience with herpes is Mollena Williams, a New York-based performer, writer, and BDSM educator. She has written about herpes on her blog and for sexuality websites, such as SexisSocial.

I reached out to three other HSV+ women of color to discuss the intersections of herpes stigma, race, and gender.

“People generally feel that black women are more sexually available and hence more likely to get an STD,” says Jessica, a 25-year-old black Barbadian woman who has had herpes since October 2015. She says the main way herpes stigma has affected her is by “harsh jokes from people in the media and the ignorance.”

“Personally, I’ve noticed how BIG the stigma is. Especially knowing that herpes isn’t a big deal and it hasn’t affected my life at all,” says Melissa, a 23 year old black woman from Pennsylvania who has also had herpes since October 2015. “I’ve noticed way more memes and jokes on television and through conversations that were funny before, but I now understand that it continues this stigma that herpes is worse than it really is. This isn’t true!”

Many white HSV+ women, such as myself, have been critical about the ignorance surrounding herpes as well as the jokes about it that are often thrown around, speaking to both Jessica and Melissa’s perceptions of the stigma. “I think that my personal experience isn’t vastly different from what is [written] out there,” says Angela*, a 24 year old black woman from New Jersey who has had herpes for about five years. “I do wish though that more black women who know their status would speak up about it, especially since black women statistically have HSV at higher rates than white women. I feel though that in the black community this isn’t something that is really talked about or well known.” Angela’s point seems to affirm what Hammonds critiques in her essay regarding the silence surrounding black women’s sexuality.

When it comes to disclosing, Angela worries “that potential partners will judge [her] as someone who has slept around a lot,” both because of her race and STI status. She says, “I don’t want people thinking they know about my sex life just because I am black and have herpes.”

Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University says, “I think what has happened over the years is we have developed this increased incident of this virus. And then once the virus is within your community, it makes it much more easily transmitted and for those numbers to increase for African-American women. So, I think that the way to reverse this, which is what we want to do, is to break that cycle by educating younger people and over time, our overall incidents and prevalence will decrease.”

She continues, “I do think that what I’ve seen in my practice is that young women often don’t protect themselves in the way that they should protect themselves. I find that there is lot of guilt and shame when it comes to sex and talking about sex.”

“I’ve gone to a predominantly white school and a predominantly black school. At the white school the sex education was taught and I felt that we were well informed. They even passed out condoms,” Melissa says. “When I transferred to the majority black school, sex education was lackluster and the school was more concerned with keeping the football/soccer/basketball funding than getting adequate books. Everyone was pregnant or would be pregnant.”

Better sex education, like Dr. Hutcherson says, is definitely an important factor in ending herpes stigma. In America, only 22 states and Washington DC mandate sex education, and only 13 states require that sex ed be medically accurate. Additionally, though both the American Medical Association and the American Pediatrics Association recommend that doctors provide confidential time during adolescent primary care visits to discuss sexual health, many physicians neglect to do so. Both schools and doctors are failing America’s youth when it comes to accurate information regarding STIs like herpes, thus allowing the stigma to thrive.

“I personally feel that women of color are already at a disadvantage concerning sexual health. The education is not there,” says Melissa. “I also feel that there is more empathy when one hears about a white woman with a STD. There are less assumptions when they speak about their status because they are seen as individuals with individual experiences.”

“It already seems like I have to speak for women, for black people, for mentally ill people, for bisexual people and now people with STDs? I suppose I don’t have the privilege of not being judged as heavily as a white woman,” Melissa states. “It’s like how white women can free the nipple openly, but black women can’t. White women can not shave, but brown women feel like they have to. Maybe there aren’t many herpes articles by women of color because that extra judgement is not something that anyone is ready for, not because we are incapable.”

It’s a privilege to live in a white body and be able to talk openly about my sexuality without having age-old stereotypes based on my race as well as my gender haunting me. However, some women of color, like Jessica, don’t believe the race of people writing about herpes necessarily matters. “We are all one color in my eyes and it makes no difference to me. We all have herpes,” she says.

* Pseudonym used at the request of the interviewee.