As college students, we are possibly the demographic that’s the most overexposed to “wrap it up” campaigns. On any given day, it’s practically raining condoms, and the “safe sex” messaging that often accompanies the latex blizzard probably isn’t given a second thought.

But it’s important to consider the possible implications of the “safe sex” advocacy that we’ve all probably been guilty of in some way. The subtext of “safe sex” — or “safer sex” messaging, for that matter — asserts that there is something inherently dangerous and threatening about not just unprotected sex but also people living with Sexually Transmitted Infections. It’s that infamous scene we’ve likely all encountered when an adult employs scared-straight tactics to encourage condom use. Usually, it’s a photograph of a familiar STI with prominent symptoms. This is usually followed by a look of disgust.

What’s often forgotten in persistent condemnations of these infections is that the pictures are attached to actual people. According to the most recent summary from the American Social Health Association, there are 19 million new STI cases each year, and half of those infections will belong to folks between the ages of 15 and 24. But somehow, it seems that the numbers alone don’t quite capture some of the faces these numbers represent. STIs negatively impact one’s sexual health. But those living with STIs aren’t defined by their infections and there is more to someone’s story than outbreaks or symptoms. There is life after infection and — dare I say it — a sex life, too.

To further illustrate this point, I met with a University student who shared her experience living with herpes. She asked for anonymity to protect her privacy and the identity of her partner. We will call her Jane. Obviously, Jane’s story isn’t a stand-in for everyone who has been infected. But it’s important to add some dimensionality to an occurrence more common than we think: STI transmission.

She remembers her diagnosis: Dec. 31, 2007. A searing vadge sore sent her and her partner to the emergency room. Her health care provider handed her a fact sheet and explained that it was likely that she had been infected with herpes in the past 30 days. “You will have this for life,” she remembered him telling her.

“It was kinda like, I had too much to drink and whatever happened, happened. We used a condom, but we weren’t officially anything,” she said. She hadn’t been with anyone but him in the past month. “It was pretty tough,” Jane said of his reaction when she told him. Like most men, he had never been tested for STIs. “He blamed me, swore he didn’t know where it came from and continued having sex with other women like it was nothing.” She soon cut ties with the man.

Here is usually where stories about STI transmission end. But for Jane, it was only the beginning. She was an undergraduate senior at the time and still covered by her parents’ insurance. They were floored when the bill was mailed home. “My mother was very anti-sex, so she was disappointed,” Jane continued. “My father knows but, to this day, we have never spoken about it.”

For four months she sought counseling and experienced a range of emotions. “I was upset, depressed, trying to finish (my) last semester of college — it was my counselor that saved me.” Jane explained, “I was living in a small town then. And she was one of the first people to talk to me about it in a non-judgmental way. She helped me gain the courage to talk openly with my mom.” In time, things got better between Jane and her mother. She was accepted into graduate school at the University.

It was in Ann Arbor that she started dating again.

She was three or four dates and steady phone calls in when she told him. All they had done was kiss. She previously told him that she wasn’t ready for sex. One night, she just said it: “I have herpes.” Jane remembered. “That is a scary word for people to hear.”

But what was done was done. She had won him over and he still wanted to see her. They dated for six months and eventually became sexually active. She took daily medication to prevent outbreaks. “Surprisingly, my partner didn’t seem nervous,” she said. “It was much more me pushing to use a condom than him.” But personality differences led to the end of the relationship.

Today, she and her live-in partner have been together a little over a year. He had been a friend, so he knew about her situation going in. They talked about sex and the risks that existed despite medicine and protection. She explained to him she could have kids and a normal life. “He was nervous at first, and we dated for two and a half months before we started having sex,” she said.

Jane is currently on birth control, so she and her partner don’t always use protection. But there is still one notable hill she hasn’t climbed since becoming infected: She hasn’t had the oral sex conversation yet. And while she gleefully explained that she masturbates and that her partner will occasionally stimulate her clitoris during intercourse, that is the extent of clitoral stimulation. “I am not sure that him not giving me oral sex has everything to do with herpes, but it’s not totally unrelated either,” she said.

Along with managing oral sex hangups, there is the pill regimen. She takes a large Valtrex pill once a day. This is largely covered by her parents’ insurance. “For the uninsured person, it costs $195 a month. But prices vary depending on how many outbreaks you have,” she said. When I asked about side effects, she paused for a moment. “I had nausea at first. … And I do check my skin occasionally to make sure there is no discoloration,” she said. Long-term use of Valtrex has been linked to kidney problems. But other than these things, Jane contends she lives a normal life.

“Herpes is an issue in the beginning. But it’s nice to know that if (partners) can talk about herpes and abstain until we are both ready, sex becomes more meaningful,” she said. In the past, Jane dated guys who were non-committal and superficial.

She also noted that while she faced rejection since contracting herpes, she has never been rejected by a man she has dated. “The only stigma I have felt has been from the public.” Jane noted, “Most of the discussions I have heard on campus are related to STIs in general or HIV. I haven’t heard anyone talking about herpes.”

Until now.

In the end, Jane’s diagnosis has had its impact, but it didn’t stop her from graduating from college, healing her relationship with her mother and pursuing a partnership she values. But it’s important to note that just as Jane isn’t defined by her STI status, she also isn’t defined by our relationship status.

As we strive to be inclusive and minimize STI stigma, it’s important to note that it’s not our place to validate anyone based on his or her STI status. But I also recognize that what we say and how we treat people matter, and we should respect each other and strive to understand those who seem different.

Rose Afriyie can be reached at sariyie@umich.edu.

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