How Herpes affects Women’s Sexuality
Contributing Author: Stephanie
Many anthropologists, sociologists, and feminist theorists have explored the reasoning behind women’s sexuality, or rather the reasoning for the almost absence of women’s sexuality in today’s society. Because women’s ability to have sexual desires based on their own personal desires, and not those of a man, is frequently discredited by mainstream society, women’s sexuality automatically becomes discredited as a whole. The idea that sexuality is socially constructed based on things we learn from media, religion, schools, and other great institutions is a common theory.
Scholars in this area have also taken specific interest in the way that an STD diagnosis might affect how a person experiences sexuality based on the social construction and meaning on the diagnosis.
Women’s sexuality is already invalidated, so an STD diagnosis simply invalidates it further based on her supposed deviation form the female sexual norm (having sexual desires, acting upon them, and being diagnosed with an STD because of those actions).
There are plenty of articles and scholarly works out there discussing this issue from an outside perspective, but I would like to share my personal experience of dealing with my new sexual identity after being diagnosed with herpes. I would like to emphasize that my perspective is very heterosexual, for lack of a better term, but I believe there will be plenty of parallels for those who identify elsewhere on the spectrum.
As I feel many young women believe when they first begin to experience their sexual selves, my sexuality was based solely on what I thought my male partner wanted.
Neither the media, school, nor my parents had ever taught me what sex or intimacy should be from a woman’s perspective. It was always based on heterosexual male pleasure.
That being the case, when I learned I had herpes I felt I could no longer fulfill those sexual desires for someone else again because I was no longer desirable to men based on my new label as a “sexual deviant.”
I would like to break down my experience into stages that coincide with Dr. Kelly’s “Stages of Grief” in her book Live, Love, & Thrive with Herpes in hopes that many of you can connect to one, a few, or maybe even all of them as you begin to find sexual freedom after your diagnosis.
Stages to Sexual Freedom:
- Reference Stage One: Trauma and Denial, and Stage Two: Feelings of Rage from Dr. Kelly’s “Stages of Grief”
- Reference Stage Three: Profound and Prolonged Sadness
- Fear of Control
- This stage triggers Stage Four of the “Stages of Grief,” Communicating and Reaching Out
- Reference Stage Five: Surrender and Acceptance, and Stage Six: Empowerment
Avoidance (Trauma and Denial/Feelings of Rage)
When I was first diagnosed I had an irrational fear of spreading herpes to anyone I had any sexual contact with at all. I say irrational, because as I learned more about the transmission of the virus, I discovered there are plenty of ways to reduce the likelihood of transmission as well as ways avoid the possibility of transmission completely.
Because of my fear, during this stage I completely avoided any situation that could lead to sexual desire, including dating.
Trauma and Denial, as Dr. Kelly emphasizes in her book, played a huge role in my avoidance. The trauma of my diagnosis as well as my denial made disclosure impossible at the time. I was not ready to disclose my situation with someone, and I knew I had to do so before becoming intimate again.
Settling (Profound and Prolonged Sadness)
Looking back on my journey, this stage brings me the most sadness, which directly relates to Dr. Kelly’s explanation of Stage Three in her book.
During the “Settling” stage my mind set was to “take what I can get.” If a man said he loved me or that he found me irresistible despite my herpes I thought I had to reciprocate those feelings. This is because I thought it was so incredibly rare for a man to feel these things about me after my diagnosis that it might be my only chance to find love or intimacy again.
After going through this stage, my blunt advice is that this is NOT TRUE. There will be many men or women that love you and find you undoubtedly sexy not despite your herpes, but almost by virtue of your herpes and the woman it has created.
Fear of Control (Communicating and Reaching Out)
This stage was by far the longest of the four because it took me so long time to understand my thought process during it.
As women we already sometimes feel a lack of control with our sexuality and sexual decisions based on the submissiveness we learn from society. After I began to seek intimacy again after settling for men I did not necessarily desire, I found it… but on someone else’s terms.
I believed that I no longer had the right to share my opinions about what I desired sexually because it was unfair to ask someone to put himself at risk for my pleasure. What I learned after verbally expressing my thoughts to loved ones was that I have just as much control over how I experience sex and intimacy as I did before.
I was afraid to take control of my sexuality again because that could mean putting someone else at risk. What I didn’t realize is that if I had disclosed my diagnosis and shared the transmission risks with my partner I had done my part in keeping him safe.
This is where Dr. Kelly’s stage on communicating and reaching out becomes so important. Without my ability to do so, I may not have allowed control back into my intimate experiences.
Freedom (Surrender and Acceptance/Empowerment)
After effectively communicating and finding the ability to reach out and seek advice from friends and family, I am finally able to enjoy my sexuality and be at peace with my diagnosis.
I have accepted that I cannot have spontaneous sexual encounters without putting others at risk, and I now understand how that is not at all a curse; it is actually a true blessing.
I have accepted that I need to be at a more intimate level with someone before I share my sexuality with them in order to feel comfortable and in control of the situation. Once again, this has proved to be a huge blessing in my life.
Finally, I have accepted that my herpes diagnosis has not hindered or tainted my sexuality in any way, but rather it has forced me to embrace every piece of my self in order to find true intimacy with another person.
I encourage you all, as I always do, to find the silver lining in situations where you feel that your herpes might have given you the short end of the stick. I can guarantee that once you start searching, you will find all the amazing ways that herpes has allowed you to grow as a woman in every way, including your sexual being.