Jimmy Kimmel has a history with herpes.
In 2019, the comedian and late-night host created a mock poll that included genital herpes in the running as a Democratic candidate against President Trump along with R. Kelly and Bill Cosby.
And just over the weekend, Kimmel tweeted that, “We’re never getting rid of Trump. Like herpes and the McRib, he’ll just keep coming back.”
These aren’t the first jokes about sexually transmitted infection and they won’t be the last. Thousands of Kimmel’s fans affirmed his attempt at humor through their likes, comments and retweets. All of which echoed the same principle: STI stigma.
I used to be like them. I laughed when I heard herpes jokes in stand-up or sitcoms. I swore that I would never consider dating anyone with herpes. I knew that I was safe; I knew I wasn’t the type of girl to get herpes.
Until, one day, I did.
At first, I came up with excuses to explain away the symptoms: An irritation from lubricant. A reaction to a new lace underwear. Too many bath salts. After all, I am not “that type of girl.” I was a good girl. I pleaded my case to every doctor or nurse that entered the examination room until, finally, someone said, “This looks herpetic.”
More than 1 in 6 people between the ages of 14 and 49 in the United States have herpes, making it among the most common sexually transmitted infection.
This doesn’t even account for those that either do not recognize their symptoms, are too ashamed to seek medical advice or cannot access affordable testing. Yet, a positive herpes diagnosis, and jokes like Kimmel’s, continue to perpetuate feelings of isolation and shame for those living with herpes — which is a lot of people.
A herpes diagnosis is usually a turning point. Not necessarily due to the symptoms, but the stigma.
It was the moment when I heard the word herpetic that I started crying as the physician scraped the lesions for confirmation. It was the immediate and lingering disgust I felt toward myself when the nurse tried to comfort me.
It was the moment I asked my father, “Who will love me now that I have this?”
For those lucky enough to receive sex education, it likely wasn’t comprehensive. The Guttmacher Institute reports that only 39 states and D.C. mandate sex education and/or HIV education. Of those, only 17 states mandate that sex education is medically accurate. Sex education is defined as “typically” including a discussion of sexually transmitted infections. This is a clear recipe for misinformation and miseducation.
Kimmel and I have something in common — we were both raised Catholic. I received an abstinence-based education that reserved penetrative sex for marriage and for the purpose of procreation. I never learned that 1 in 2 sexually active young adults would contract an STI before age 25. I never learned that a condom was not 100 percent effective at preventing STIs that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (like herpes). I never learned that people with herpes could remain asymptomatic throughout their lives. I never knew of a narrative other than, “Herpes is something that you never want to have.”
We are not confronted with the internalized stereotypes that we hold about people with herpes until we have to be. Whether that’s through our own diagnosis, a partner’s disclosure or a friend confiding in us. Out of shame and fear of rejection, many choose to conceal their herpes status. Some maintain this secret to their grave.
Research consistently confirms the psychological distress that individuals face following a genital herpes diagnosis. For women, the stigma is often more severe. A 2012 study interviewed women after their STI diagnoses and summarized their responses under three themes: dirty and diseased, deviant and fearful of rejection, and unworthy of love.
Kimmel’s humor, or lack thereof, is not totally to blame. He is a product of American culture and its sex education system. Herpes, derived from the Greek word meaning “to creep,” lives up to its etymology. Kimmel’s claim that herpes “keeps coming back” is incorrect. While some may have recurring outbreaks with presenting symptoms, others may never experience an outbreak in their lifetime. Ninety percent of those living with HSV-2 don’t even know that they have the virus.
Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend screening for herpes in standard STI panels, most people do not have a testing history despite asking to be “tested for everything.” Others either do not have symptoms, or have symptoms so minor that they are mistaken for an ingrown hair or razor burn.
Internet moments like Kimmel’s tweet show that at the root of these jokes is a deep stigma that stems from basic miseducation.
The anxiety you feel waiting for an STI test, wondering what a positive result would mean for your love life and identity? That’s stigma.
Comparing herpes and other STIs to celebrities with a history of sexual abuse is telling everyone who receives a positive diagnosis that they are just as socially unwanted, outcast and inhuman.
Every herpes joke that you laugh at, share or like on social media affirms the narrative that having herpes — or any STI — is a death sentence.
But I’m still here.
I didn’t get herpes because I was a bad girl. I didn’t get herpes because I deserved it. I got herpes because it’s inevitable. With herpes, there’s no such thing as good or bad.
There is only human.