The New Scarlet Letter

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

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The epidemic has clearly made married philanderers extremely wary. Few things cool extramarital ardor like the specter of passing on an incurable disease to a mate and then having to explain where it came from. A chemical engineer from New York knows how the one-night stand can go these days: on a business trip a beautiful woman invited him up to her room. He went, but was troubled by thoughts of herpes sores. He asked the lady outright. Her denial was not enough; he was impotent. "I wanted to go through with it," he confided to a friend, "but my body wouldn't respond."

Wives now give husbands smiling lectures on the ravages of the disease to keep them faithful. In a Washington, D.C., bar, a woman recently delivered an impassioned speech to her boyfriend on the many advantages of marrying her, the chief one being that he could escape herpes by dropping out of the bachelor life. Some middle-aged men refuse to date women under 30 in the belief that younger people are more likely to have herpes. A West Coast woman finds that having herpes gives her an excuse for avoiding casual sex. Once she acknowledges that she has the disease, nonserious suitors disappear, and "any man involved with me is really interested in me."

In a monogamous relationship, the unsuspecting person who picks up herpes from a partner is hit with a double whammy: evidence of betrayal and a lifelong disease as a memento of the event. Some marriages and many relationships end in the discord and lingering suspicion caused by herpes. When only one partner has herpes, anger is a heavy factor, and so is emotional overload: the herpes sufferer leans too much on the mate and the tottering relationship collapses. Says Psychiatrist Elisabeth Herz of George Washington University Medical Center: "Don't expect to cry on the shoulder of the partner. That's what drives couples apart."

Psychotherapist Michael Herships of Long Island says his recurrent attacks a couple of years ago, for about ten days each month, contributed to the collapse of a serious relationship. "A lot of time I couldn't be sexual," he says. "She saw it as a way of rejecting her. I withdrew emotionally and she didn't understand. Finally she moved out. I felt guilty, asexual." Many feel asexual enough to swear off sex. Seattle Medical Assistant Mike Remington says: "We hear it over and over: 'I won't have sex ever again.' "

Those who resume a full sex life often think they will be safe with partners who already have the disease. But the sufferer can be reinfected in different parts of the body, or may receive a different strain of the disease. "I probably wouldn't see another person with herpes," says a thirtyish New Yorker. "I know that sounds awful, but I can't risk re-exposure and a possible parallel case."

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