The New Scarlet Letter

Herpes, an incurable virus, threatens to undo the sexual revolution

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After chastity slouched off into exile in the '60s, the sexual revolution encountered little resistance. Indeed, in the age of the Pill, Penthouse Pets and porn-movie cassettes, the revolution looked so sturdily permanent that sex seemed to subside into a simple consumer item. Now, suddenly, the old fears and doubts are edging back. So is the fire and brimstone rhetoric of the Age of Guilt. The reason for all this dolor: herpes, an ancient viral infection that can be transmitted during sex, recurs fitfully and cannot be cured. Also known as the scourge, the new Scarlet Letter, the VD of the Ivy League and Jerry Falwell's revenge, herpes has emerged from relative obscurity and exploded into a full-fledged epidemic.

Spurred on by two decades of sexual permissiveness, the disease has cut swiftly through the ranks of the sexually active. "The truth about life in the United States in the 1980s," says Dr. Kevin Murphy of Dallas, one of the nation's leading herpes researchers, "is that if you are going to have sex, you are going to have to take the risk of getting herpes." An estimated 20 million Americans now have genital herpes, with as many as half a million new cases expected this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Those remarkable numbers are altering sexual rites in America, changing courtship patterns, sending thousands of sufferers spinning into months of depression and self-exile and delivering a numbing blow to the one-night stand. The herpes counterrevolution may be ushering a reluctant, grudging chastity back into fashion. Eight years ago, Alex Comfort, the expansive apostle of coitus, could say of sex: "There is nothing to be afraid of, and never was." Now, in the Age of Herpes, Playboy employees jokingly refer to the swimming facilities at Hugh Hefner's Los Angeles mansion as "the herpes pool." A Manhattan resident who had always longed to disport himself at a sexual playpen called Plato's Retreat now says he will go only if he can wear a full-length wet suit. Flesh Merchant Al Goldstein, editor of Screw magazine, says glumly, "It may be there is a god in heaven carving out his pound of flesh for all our joys."

The existence of the herpes virus and its accompanying sores and blisters has been known for at least 2,000 years. It is said to have caused so terrible an epidemic of lip sores in ancient Rome that the Emperor Tiberius banned kissing. Shakespeare also was familiar with the blight. In Romeo and Juliet, he speaks of blisters "o'er ladies' lips." In 18th century France, genital herpes was so common among prostitutes that it was termed "a vocational disease of women." Yet it was not until the 1940s that herpes was found to be a virus, and not until the late 1960s that researchers isolated two types of herpes. So little known was the virus that doctors confidently misdiagnosed it right up through the late 1970s.

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