The New Scarlet Letter

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

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any people who contract herpes go through stages similar to those of mourning for the death of a loved one: shock, emotional numbing, isolation and loneliness, sometimes serious depression and impotence. Often there is a frantic search for a doctor who will give a different diagnosis, or a kind of magical bargaining with the disease ("Maybe if I don't have sex for a while, it will go away"). Almost always there is rageā€”at the carrier, the opposite sex in general and the medical profession. Says a Los Angeles woman: "When I first got it, I wanted to pass it on to everyone for vengeance until everyone had it and it became normal." Some people act out their fantasies of revenge. A Midwestern woman says she has infected 75 men in three years. Says a Philadelphia man who brags that he infected 20 women: "They were just one-night stands, so they deserved it anyway."

A homosexual, 42, who drives a cab in Cambridge, Mass., thought he had an allergic reaction to a laundry detergent. Two doctors and a second attack later, he knew. "I was an angry person before and I'm angrier now," he says. His earliest fear was that herpes scars on his genitals would make him unattractive to other men, but that no longer concerns him. Now, like many sufferers, he has become a "professor of herpes," plunging into the medical literature when he has time, trying to control the disease by understanding it. He refuses to risk infecting others, so he stays celibate. "I didn't get this till I was 39," he says. "I had 15 years of sexual freedom. If I was 20, my attitude might be different."

Says Detroit Psychiatrist Elliot Luby: "As time goes on there is a 'leper' effect, and some patients describe convictions of their own ugliness, contamination or even dangerousness." Says Kim Robertson, 35, a furniture repairman who lives near San Francisco: "I thought anyone in their right mind would stay away from me." Robertson did not date for two years, and when he did he avoided intimacy. "You don't take the phone number. You don't want to go through the rejection."

Many sufferers compulsively change towels and sheets and wash their hands dozens of times a day. One sign of the herpetic, says Psychotherapist Herships, is chapped hands from overwashing. "You never think you're clean enough," he says. Since friction can trigger a recurrence, tight jeans, the uniform of the sexual revolution, are out. Men switch from jockey to boxer shorts, and women often give up wearing panties or pantyhose. One New York woman, a ballet dancer by avocation, could not dance for a year because tights and leotards were too painful.

A Washington lawyer, 28, spent a month in bed with her first bout, then stayed drunk for half a year, dividing her time between ritualistic repetitions of the phrase "This hasn't happened to me" and harsh daydreams of revenge against the man who gave her the disease. She stopped wearing makeup, ironing her clothes and shaving her legs. "I felt as though someone had pulled the plug," she says, "and let all my sexuality and self-confidence swirl down the drain."

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