The New Scarlet Letter

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

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Perversely, some sufferers begin to resent their own attractiveness. An afflicted New York lawyer, married and the mother of a baby girl, was enraged when a construction worker would flirt or whistle. "You bastard," she thought, "little do you know I'm poisoned." New York Architect Geoffrey Meisel refused to go into bars for months after he got herpes, because he felt like a fake. "You're putting on this great front when you know that deep down inside you is this lesion."

Women often have a harder time than men. They appear to suffer more physically in both the initial and subsequent episodes. During recurrent attacks of herpes, they have more lesions than men do, and the pain lasts twice as long. On the other hand, to complicate matters further, there are some women who are barely aware of their herpes outbreaks and the periods during which they are high transmission risks. They sometimes have internal, hard-to-see lesions, they may be carrying the virus in their genital secretions, and a few may spread the disease via shedding from the cervix without showing any overt symptoms. For many women, the disease exacerbates their doubts about casual sex; they feel they were pushed into it by a permissive culture, then made to pay a heavy price.

Unsympathetic friends and relatives can be an additional burden. New York Therapist Michele Krieg, a divorcee, 33, after gathering the courage to tell her mother, heard in response: "But, dear, no one will ever marry you again, will they?" Then a pregnant friend coldly told her to stop visiting until after the baby was born. In one Manhattan office, co-workers of a woman who had herpes refused to use the same phone and got up a petition to ban her from the office, lest she somehow harm an employee undergoing chemotherapy. Some law firms have been making discreet inquiries of doctors, wondering whether it is legal to fire a worker for having herpes. Almost anywhere, at any time, some prattler is bound to say, "Herpes is a very trendy disease, isn't it?" as if the sufferer contracted it to achieve stylishness.

Part of the pain for herpes patients is the conviction of being damaged goods. George Washington University's Elisabeth Herz reports "intense guilt feelings" among women who get the disease, and hears again and again the feeling that they are unclean, dirty. "We're all looking for someone to love," says a New York woman, a freelance artist. "In this world our chances seem so slim anyway. Then you add herpes and you think, 'Why should anyone want me now?' " A doctor in Amityville, N.Y., says the same glum view has invaded the ranks of teenage herpes sufferers, who come into his office, cry and say, "No one will ever want to marry me."

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