Usher Backlash Highlights Major Misconceptions About Herpes

August 7th 2017

Herpes is a sexually transmitted infection often marked by public misconceptions and a general lack of information. As a result, the virus comes with stigmas that are so strong, the mere suspicion of a positive status can result in a public backlash and even lawsuits. 

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As Spin reported, two women and a man are suing the singer Usher Raymond, alleging that he potentially exposed them to the herpes virus and that one of them has since contracted the infection. Raymond has never publicly confirmed that he has the herpes virus, though it was recently revealed that in 2012, he paid $1.1 million to settle a lawsuit with a woman who claimed that he had transmitted herpes to her. TMZ reported that celebrity attorney Lisa Bloom filed a lawsuit on behalf of her clients, who want damages for the alleged exposure to the incurable virus. At a press conference with Bloom on Monday, plaintiff Quantasia Sharpton — who said that she does not have herpes — alleged that Raymond selected her out of a crowd when she was 19 and they had sex. She is suing for her "rights as a woman" and wants the singer to publicly disclose his herpes status.

The story started a discussion on Twitter about Usher's alleged herpes status, including jokes about the titles of his hit songs.

The word "incurable" surrounding the herpes virus often strikes fear in the hearts of the sexually active.

But the truth is, there's a good chance you've already been exposed to the herpes virus and just don't know it. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every six people between the ages of 14 an 49 in the U.S. has genital herpes. And most people who have the virus —which comes in the form of either herpes simplex type 1 (HSV1) or type 2 (HSV2) — don't have symptoms. The World Health Organization says that 67 percent of people in the world under the age of 50 have type 1 and 11 percent of people ages 15 to 49 have type 2. But both can assert themselves in the genital area. 

"The irony of this Usher story is that the people freaking out about him having herpes probably also have the virus," Ella Dawson, a sexual health advocate who has given a TEDx Talk on her own herpes diagnosis, told ATTN: via email. "STI [sexually transmitted infections] stigma makes us think herpes only happens to disgusting, dishonest people who make horrible decisions, and we are quick to judge others who test positive."

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Jenelle Marie Pierce, founder of the STD Project and a spokesperson for Positive Singles, told ATTN: that Americans love talking about sex, but not sexually transmitted infections or diseases. 

"No one wants to acknowledge that while sex can be wonderfully rewarding, it also comes with some pretty giant responsibilities and risk," she said via email. "And sometimes even the most responsible and sexually healthy people still contract an STD — it happens all the time."

Here are five things you need to know about herpes: 

1. You should get tested. 

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Again, most people who have herpes don't have symptoms and that means they may not request a test for the virus in their routine STI screenings. Herpes tests are not necessarily included in a standard screening and you should check with your healthcare provider, according to the CDC. However, even if someone doesn't have symptoms they can still spread the virus, so it's important to know your status. Testing is especially important for pregnant women, as the virus can be dangerous during pregnancy, and in some cases, deadly for newborn babies. But if an expectant mother is aware of a herpes infection, there are steps that doctors can take to protect her and the child. 

2. Living with herpes is probably not as bad as you think. 

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If you put herpes into a Google image search, your screen will likely provide horrific images of lesions and sores, often in the most intimate of places. This is a reality for some people, but for most people the condition presents itself in a milder form. 

"Most individuals infected with HSV are asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed or are mistaken for another skin condition," wrote the CDC in a report on the herpes virus. "When symptoms do occur, herpes lesions typically appear as one or more vesicles, or small blisters, on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth." 

The first outbreak of a herpes infection is usually the worst and improves over time, but without adequate counseling from medical professionals, newly infected people can believe their diagnosis is dire. Pierce said she was told she had herpes by her family doctor when she was 16-years-old and living in a very small town.

"My doctor took one look between my legs, told me it was the worst case of herpes he had ever seen, gave me a prescription for Valtrex (anti-viral medication), and sent me on my way," she said.

Pierce said she didn't receive any information about her prognosis or guidance on how to live with the virus. "No statistics about how common herpes is and how all different kinds of people have it, and definitely no helpful information about how to inform new partners or just go about living my life without hating myself," she said. 

For people who do experience more severe symptoms, there are anti-viral drugs that can help suppress lesions. Dawson said that a lack of information is to blame for the misconceptions that surround the virus. 

"Herpes has a horrible reputation thanks to a combination of bad sex education, lack of access to medical care, and media that uses herpes as a punch line or an insult," she said. "It's a skin condition, not a consequence of bad behavior, and it's not even always sexually transmitted. Herpes has been blown wildly out of proportion."

3. There are two types of herpes. 

HSV1 is generally associated with cold sores on the mouth and HSV2 is usually associated with genital herpes. However, an increasing number of genital herpes infections are caused by type 1, according to the CDC. For example, someone can develop genital herpes from having oral sex performed on them by someone who has HSV1 on their mouth. People can also pass oral herpes from non-sexual contact.

4. Condoms can reduce the risk of herpes transmission, but they can't eliminate it. 

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The CDC says consistent condom use can reduce the risk of herpes exposure, however the virus is transmitted through skin contact, even when there are no bumps or sores present. Because condoms don't cover all of the skin-to-skin contact that occurs during intercourse, it's still possible to contract herpes.  

"Infections are transmitted through contact with HSV in herpes lesions, mucosal surfaces, genital secretions, or oral secretions," the CDC noted. "HSV-1 and HSV-2 can be shed from normal-appearing oral or genital mucosa or skin."

5. Experts recommend that you tell your sexual partners if you have herpes.

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Pierce and Dawson both said that, although the conversation can be difficult, you should tell a potential partner about a diagnosis before you have sex.

"If you know you have an infection, you should always tell someone before putting them at risk," Pierce said. "It's not an easy conversation at all and I get that, but it's still the ethical thing to do."

However, Dawson said that stigmatizing and even criminalizing people who don't disclose a sexually transmitted infection can also be dangerous.   

"Anyone who works in public health will tell you that laws making it illegal to not disclose an STI, known as HIV criminalization laws, only reinforce the stigma surrounding STIs that make people less likely to tell their partners their status," she said.

She said that the backlash and potential legal consequences facing Usher make it harder for people to talk about herpes in a meaningful and effective way. "It's a violation to not tell someone your STI status, but it's worth having a conversation about why we as a society make it so hard to disclose our STI status in the first place," she said. 

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