The New Scarlet Letter

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

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That is a useful reminder: herpes is only as devastating as a patient allows it to be. It is not life-threatening. After the first bout, pain is usually less severe. The virus can be subdued without drugs, by applying the oldest of American remedies—positive thinking. Indeed, herpes is so dependent on mood and emotion that once a sufferer regains self-confidence, many outbreaks can be tamed and managed. "I see an enormous number of people who really do cope," says Seattle's Dr. Lawrence Corey. "They have to live with having the disease, but it doesn't consume them."

For now, herpes cannot be defeated, only cozened into an uneasy, lifelong truce. It is a melancholy fact that it has rekindled old fears. But perhaps not so unhappily, it may be a prime mover in helping to bring to a close an era of mindless promiscuity. The monogamous now have one more reason to remain so. For all the distress it has brought, the troublesome little bug may inadvertently be ushering in a period in which sex is linked more firmly to commitment and trust. —BY John Leo. Reported by Maureen Dowd/New York with other bureaus

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