Why We're All So Afraid Of Herpes, Even Though It's Actually Not The Worst STD

by Alexia LaFata
Melanie Riccardi
Kylah Benes-Trapp

The thought of getting an STD is petrifying, but the thought of getting herpes? Well, to all of us, that's even scarier.

Our Sex ED reader survey of 240 Millennials found that both men and women list herpes as the SECOND STD they're most concerned about contracting, right behind HIV/AIDS.

Think about that for a second: We're more scared of herpes than we are of gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis, HPV, trichomoniasis, genital warts, pubic lice, syphilis, bacterial vaginosis, scabies and pubic lice.

But why? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), genital herpes is extremely common. About two out of three people worldwide under age 50 have HSV-1, which is the kind of herpes that appears on the mouth.

However, HSV-1 can spread to the genitals during oral sex to cause genital herpes. About one out of six people aged 14 to 49 years old have HSV-2 (genital herpes).

Symptoms of herpes are blisters around the genitals, rectum or mouth that break and leave sores. The vast majority of people who are infected don't show any symptoms, or they mistake the symptoms for something else, like a pimple or an ingrown hair.

That being said, both types of herpes are nowhere near as dangerous as some other STDs.

"Genital herpes is a remarkably misunderstood disease in so many ways," says Dr. Edward W. Hook III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Epidemiology and Microbiology at the University of Alabama. "As a result, the disease is viewed with unwarranted dread and many people are afraid to talk about it."

The truth is, even though the herpes virus lives in your body for life once you contract it, it's very easy to manage. The first outbreak is often the worst. In addition to the sores, you may experience flu-like symptoms, such as body aches and a fever. But the frequency and severity of your outbreaks will decrease over time.

Plus, herpes can be managed by medications. Dr. Hook says anti-viral medications can decrease outbreaks and reduce your likelihood of spreading herpes to your partner by over 50 percent.

The only time genital herpes can be super dangerous is if you contract it while you're pregnant, since you can pass on a potentially fatal form of herpes, called neonatal herpes, to your baby.

"The social ramifications of a genital herpes diagnosis are, by far, what scares people the most," says Jenelle Marie Davis, MBA, Founder and Executive Director of "People tend to focus on what genital herpes will mean for their relationships — how will I date, tell a new partner, or have a healthy sex life – versus the physical impact."

The social ramifications of a genital herpes diagnosis are, by far, what scares people the most.

According to, a website dedicated to reducing the stigma around herpes, the herpes stigma stemmed from a 1970s and 1980s drug marketing campaign that convinced people herpes was a huge deal. Prior to the campaign, herpes was not even mentioned in standard medical textbooks.

"Society is perpetuating the stigma behind herpes," says Dr. Hook. "Herpes earned a spot on the cover of TIME magazine in the 1980s, with the fear-inspiring headline: 'Herpes: America's new scarlet letter.' Who wants to talk about such a taboo topic, or admit they have this STI?"

Our culture, indeed, is obsessed with herpes, and it looks for unique ways to freak us all out about it. The media, in particular, has a field day with herpes jokes. Writer Leah Berkenwald of Scarleteen pointed out that almost every single Judd Apatow movie — that includes gems like "Knocked Up," "40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" — has a herpes joke.

Then, there's Amy Schumer:

And this joke from "Pitch Perfect":

So much of the jokes and commentary about herpes suggests that getting it would be a death sentence, or that those who have herpes are whores, like this line from "The Hangover": "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit will come back with you."

Ella Dawson, a Millennial who's been diagnosed with herpes, doesn't think the disease is a death sentence at all. In fact, in a deeply personal essay for Women's Health entitled "Why I Love Telling People I Have Genital Herpes," she embraces her condition wholeheartedly.

But the journey to acceptance definitely wasn't easy.

“I'm an activist for better sexual health education, I practiced safe sex with my partners and used condoms — it was devastating [when I got the diagnosis]," she told Buzzfeed. “It took me a while to realize herpes is extraordinarily common and that it shouldn't be associated with moral judgement or a reflection of someone's character."

Now, Dawson is a huge advocate for fighting against the herpes stigma. Her personal blog is dedicated to, among other things, her life after her herpes diagnosis.

"I wanted people to see herpes as something that happens to friends, loved ones, and co-workers — not a punchline," she says.

Hopefully, that's the direction we're heading in. As Dr. Hook says, "The stigma associated with herpes is tied to America's discomfort with sex and sexuality. Once we accept sex as a natural and positive part of life, maybe the infections tied to it won't be considered taboo."

The stigma associated with herpes is tied to America's discomfort with sex and sexuality.

Perhaps with a little bit more education — and maybe laughing at one less Judd Apatow joke — it's possible to see herpes as nothing more than what it is: a mild skin condition that's been blown way out of proportion.

Read more from our Sex ED series.