Sex, lies and STDs

A buzzy lawsuit brings up a common phenomenon: People lying about, or concealing, their true status

By Tracy Clark-Flory on Salon.com

TMZ’s week was sure made by news that an A-list celebrity was being sued for spreading herpes. An anonymous woman filed a $20 million lawsuit against the unnamed star, claiming that he knowingly exposed her to the virus, which she was diagnosed with after their fling.

This isn’t the first time an STD lawsuit has made headlines (see: Michael Vick, David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams), nor is it a phenomenon reserved for big-name celebs. For example, in 2009, a California woman won a $7 million lawsuit against the (very rich) man who concealed his status and gave her herpes. These hard-to-win cases are extremely rare — but anecdotally, at least, the dishonesty around this subject is hardly unusual. I decided to talk to people about how they had lied, and been lied to, about incurable but common STDs like herpes and HPV. I found that once I started asking around, it wasn’t difficult to find stories of deception — during one-night stands and long-term committed relationships alike.

“Linda” got genital herpes from her first boyfriend at age 18 and says, “I have never told any of the subsequent guys that I’ve slept with or dated,” she wrote to me in an email. “I have never acknowledged this to anybody else. I’ve never ‘said it’ out loud. I always say to myself, ‘I’ll tell the next one,’ but that hasn’t happened yet.” Linda acknowledges that it’s unethical — “which is terrible for me, because I’m a social worker. I’m supposed to be all about ethics,” she says — and is wracked with guilt.

……Oh, honey. There is no denying that the most moral policy is to be completely upfront about your status — but her silence isn’t rare at all. In fact, the only unusual thing about Linda is that she was the sole person who contacted me and copped to having personally hidden an STD from her partners. It’s much easier to find people willing to talk about being on the other side of things.

“Owen,” a gay man in his early 20s, wrote to tell me about a drunken hookup with a man he met in a bar. Only later did his one-night stand admit that he was HIV positive; luckily, they used a condom. “He said he only concealed his HIV status from me because after being diagnosed the previous year, he felt like he would never be able to feel attractive or ‘wanted’ again. He used me to help convince himself that he was still desirable.” Owen says he “felt a tiny bit of empathy towards him” — which was no doubt easier after his HIV test came back negative. “It was a long three-month wait for the testing window period to pass,” he said.

….So, why do people do this? Part of it is the mistaken belief that after the symptoms of an incurable STD like herpes or genital warts disappear, it’s no longer transmissible. It’s less likely to be passed along after treatment, yes, particularly when the lesions or bumps are absent, but the possibility is still there. That is part of why these diseases spread so effectively: It’s called asymptomatic shedding of the virus.

It’s also true that these STDs are so alarmingly prevalent that some people just shrug and say, “But everyone has it, right — why bother revealing my status?” It’s suggested that 50 percent of sexually active Americans will get an HPV infection at some time in their life (and it usually clears on its own, often without the presentation of any symptoms). An estimated 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 8 men, have genital herpes.

Some people who lie about their status — say, HIV-positive people who intentionally have unprotected high-risk sex with the intent of spreading the deadly virus — are quite simply sociopaths. But it’s more commonly the case that people hide their status because they’re mortified. It’s why so many bogus herpes and HPV drugs are hawked online, despite copious evidence that no cure exists. Some people’s desperation is so great that they are willing to believe in magic — and of course they are. Sex is one of the most powerful ways that we seek pleasure, connection and acceptance — and the disclosure of an STD can feel like a threat to all that. This cuts straight to the heart of our insecurities about sex: the worry that we are undesirable. The irony is that there is something very lovable about expressions, like Linda’s, of such deep fears — because it is so profoundly human.

Some portions of this article have been left out. For the complete article click here: Sex, lies and STDs

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