The New Scarlet Letter

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

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Susan, a Massachusetts housewife and part-time secretary, had herpes for six years and was eight months pregnant when she read in a book that her disease was linked to cervical cancer and could damage babies during birth. "I wanted to take a knife and cut the skin right off me," she says. "I was just so scared about my baby." A healthy girl was born, and for six months Susan was "hysterical" about protecting the youngster, now 3½. "She is probably the most paranoid kid on the block," says Susan, because of elaborate warnings and precautions. Susan douses the house with quarts of Lysol when friends come over, and admits to "enormous" sexual problems with her husband, who caught herpes from her.

Stan, a married man in his 30s who chases women in Manhattan bars, has his own patented method of checking for herpes. When the chitchat has moved far enough along that the woman is peering his way with bedroom eyes, he caresses her right hand, then presses his thumb sharply down on her wrist and barks: "You have herpes, don't you?" "If her pulse jumps, she has it," he says. "If she doesn't, she just laughs." Sometimes, of course, a woman is offended by his personalized lie-detector test. "I lose a few women that way," he says with a shrug, "but at least I don't have herpes."

With visions of herpes sores clouding each new encounter, would-be lovers who used to gaze romantically into each other's eyes now look for the telltale blink or averted glance of the dissembling herpetic. One male skeptic even called the best friend of a woman he wanted to sleep with and asked if his intended had the disease. In the new etiquette of the ailment, a direct question ("You don't have herpes, do you?") is regarded as tacky. Standard openings have evolved. "You would tell me if you had anything I could catch, wouldn't you?" is admired for its implication of trust and its we're-in-this-together coziness. "Have you ever had a cold sore?" is a bit chatty and oblique but not confrontational. The most straightforward query for a woman is simply "Do you mind wearing a condom?"

"The problem should be demystified. It's just cold sores in the wrong place," says Paul cheerfully, if not entirely accurately. He is a New York real estate agent who is divorced. "I picked it up in 1974," he says, "on the only one-night stand in my life." He bolsters his self-esteem by telling himself, "Basically there are a lot of people out there as miserable as me." He has occasional bouts of depression, dabbles in herbal remedies and recently took out a personal ad in New York's weekly Village Voice seeking a woman with herpes. Aside from the ad, he never tells women about his herpes. "I don't want to doom myself to being rejected," he says. "If I tell everyone about herpes, there will be a lot of no sales."

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