Different cultures, herpes and sex

I was recently leading a herpes support group and one of the clinicians (from Brazil) shared something really interesting. Her share directly shows how the culture we live in has a tremendous impact on how we perceive our lives and who we are.

After moving to America (especially working as a Planned Parenthood nurse), she was stunned to see the amount of shame surrounding herpes in our society. She just hadn’t experienced herpes as an issue in Brazilian society. At all. If anything, it was a non-issue. She told us that she had overheard plenty of open conversations at the bar like “I’m having a herpes outbreak now, so no sex tonight, okay?” Said in casual conversation. No shame. No covering it up. I find that refreshing and — dare I say — normal. Brazilian culture is clearly much less stigmatized around herpes (if there is any stigma at all), which allows the Brazilians to navigate talking about it in a healthy way instead of layering on the shame. I found myself wondering what came first. A classic herpetic chicken-or-egg question: Did this okayness around herpes come about from a top-down direction or from the bottom up?

Based on my limited knowledge of Brazilian culture (and hispanic culture in general), they seem to be in a full embrace of their sexuality. Good for them. On the whole, they seem to celebrate sex instead of condemning it. American society — despite its liberal leanings in other ways — is still living in the Puritan days where sex is a sin. Even if it’s not an overt, conscious belief, it permeates the flavor of our culture and impacts how we behave.

Let’s be clear here: there’s no hint here that we should sexualize everything that moves or be flagrant with our sexuality; there is a happy medium between the two, which is to treat sex as it is: the most natural, fun, respected and inherited trait of any human being. Thank goodness sex exists … or we wouldn’t. Sex between consenting adults is a beautiful thing. Period.

So I find myself wondering … do individuals have the power to influence culture when it comes to herpes? If we as our culture's representatives of herpes can learn to be open and not feed into the stigma ourselves, then will the stigma shrivel without the cultural shame to feed it?

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