Sarah is a healthy, energetic accountant in her mid-20s who has everything going for her, except she lives with a secret that will affect her and her sexual partners for the rest of her life.
“It’s a burden, emotionally, to carry, and you can’t help but feel a sort of shame. Even though it’s so common, no one talks about it.”
About three months into her relationship with her girlfriend, Sarah became ill with the flu and didn’t think anything of it. Slowly the common cold became sinister when a rash appeared around her genital area. Her world was turned upside down. “My imagination went wild,” she remembers. “I automatically started thinking of all the worst possible outcomes. Everything had been going so well for me until then. I had a wonderful job, I had fallen in love and couldn’t be happier.”
A self-described ‘committed’ person who practices safe sex, Sarah went to see her local GP and was tested for STIs when over-the-counter medications and Google weren’t helping the condition.
“Even though it’s so common, no one talks about it.”
When Sarah’s results came in she was blindsided by the complex and unexpected news of having contracted HSV 1. “HSV 1 and HSV 2 are different types of the same virus (HSV) or Herpes Simplex,” clarifies Siri May from ACON’s Sexual Health Programs. “HSV1 more commonly occurs around the mouth but can also occur on the genitals. HSV2 occurs mainly on and around the genital area.”
Neither Sarah nor her partner had had symptoms of the virus. “I was shocked to say the least,” she said, and was “relieved” it wasn’t HSV 2, but confusion set in when she couldn’t understand how this occurred.
Siri explains that the herpes virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact and can be transmitted during vaginal, oral or anal sex. “About 12% of adults in Australia are infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), making it one of the most common sexually transmissible infections in Australia,” she says. 75% of adults in Australia are infected with type 1 (HSV-1) infection and an unknown amount have acquired it sexually. “All could potentially sexually transmit the infection to others, particularly through oral sex.”
Sarah’s life has changed forever physically and emotionally. “The hardest part is not actually the outbreaks but dealing with the social stigma attached to the virus,” she confides. “Having the courage to have sex again was a hard emotional step.” Society’s double standards make her feel “dirty” even though there is a lot of support for the virus that two thirds of Australians have contracted.
“Sex positivity is imperative for good sexual health education,” Siri explains. “This means we educate about sex and sexual health in a way that isn’t based on fear. Creating fear about STIs and sex can contribute to increased stigma and shame. This can result in women feeling less confident and able to disclose their STI status in sexual negotiation.”
There are prevention methods to reduce the risk of transmission, which Siri explains are exactly the same for lesbians and same-sex attracted women as they are for the broader community. “If you are not currently experiencing an outbreak on your genitals, you’re likely not to be shedding the virus so you are able to have sex without high risk of transmission. If you do experience an outbreak on your genitals or around your anus avoid sexual contact in the area until it has cleared,” she says. If you experience an outbreak on your mouth, avoid kissing, sharing drinks or performing any kind of oral sex until it has cleared.
Although Sarah is currently single she knows she has to be open and honest with future sexual partners. “It’s not something I want to do but I HAVE to do,” she realises. “Being honest is the most important part of any relationship, especially being honest with yourself.”
Siri suggests increasing your own knowledge about your body and “remain aware of symptoms and changes in your genital area. Get tested regularly if you are having regular sex with different people, if your partner is, or if your partner hasn’t been tested.”