Herpes and Sexual Scripts

If you talk with a physician about having herpes simplex virus (HSV), they would likely tell you that the virus is pretty benign (e.g., skin irritation, physical fatigue).  Yet, so many struggle with having HSV.  That’s because of the immense social stigma with having the virus.  Additionally, sexual scripts often add to that social stigma.  If you are someone who has HSV, or someone who wants to learn more, this article will help you understand and challenge the relationship between HSV and sexual scripts.

What Are Sexual Scripts?

To begin, what even are sexual scripts?  Simply put, sexual scripts are the messages, expectations, and attitudes we hold regarding sexuality.  Furthermore, people unconsciously absorb these sexual scripts from their society. Some of these messages may come from parents, movies and television, and the sexual education taught in the person’s school. These scripts form as early as childhood and persist way into one’s adulthood. Over time, these unconscious messages form a rigid set of expectations on how sex “should” be (e.g., sex should end with orgasm, sex should always be spontaneous, sex should be natural and require no discussion).  Sexual scripts affect all aspects of sexuality, including HSV.

How Sexual Scripts and HSV Intersect

Once again, sexual scripts are internalized “shoulds” or expectations.  What can make sexual scripts so pernicious is their potential to be rigid and judgmental.  Essentially, these expectations say, “You need to be this specific way,” therefore, a person can feel guilty, sad, or even ashamed when they fail to live up to those expectations.  To assess your own sexual scripts, ask yourself which “shoulds” you tend to hold for yourself.  For clarity, here are some examples of how some sexual scripts intersect with HSV.  See if you have found yourself holding any of these beliefs.

  • “I shouldn’t have had sex with so many people.  That’s why I have herpes.”
  • “Because I have HSV, I can’t be ‘too picky’ with my partner choices.”
  • “I should have only had sex within a committed relationship.”
  • “Sexual communication is awkward.  Sex should just happen naturally.”
  • “I shouldn’t have sex if I have a chronic sexually transmitted infection (STI).”
  • “Because I have HSV, I don’t want to be too much of a burden to my sexual partner.”
  • “Only dirty people get herpes.”
  • “People are going to think that I’m a whore now that I have HSV.”
  • “Because I have herpes, I should be responsible for the other person’s comfort and education regarding HSV.”

Though anyone can experience these sexual scripts, it’s important to acknowledge the intersection of gender.  Despite how irrational they may seem on the surface, many people still hold unconscious “rules” for how women should sexually express themselves versus men, versus non-binary folk, and et cetera.  For example, more women than men may resonate with the first bullet point.  Besides having few sexual partners, there is also the expectation for some women to focus more on their partner’s needs.  Conversely, some men may feel embarrassed to communicate their sexual needs, causing them to avoid the topic altogether, especially if they have HSV.  Acknowledging the gendered experience of sexual scripts is not about guilt nor shame, but to arm you with the tools to make change.

How to Challenge Sexual Scripts

After you have taken some time to acknowledge your sexual scripts, use reality testing to challenge them.  Reality testing focuses on the facts and plausibility of a belief.  Essentially, reality testing is concerned with the evidence that backs up a certain claim.  Let’s use an earlier sexual script as an example.  

 

Sexual Script: “Only dirty people get herpes.  I have herpes, therefore, I’m dirty.”

 

Evidence For Evidence Against
I know an immoral person who has HSV Sexual behavior does not always dictate a person’s morality
Society tells me that people with herpes are immoral. A person can have sex once and receive HSV
A person can be born with HSV
A person can receive HSV within a committed, faithful relationship
The herpes simplex virus is not selective, and therefore, does not care about a person’s morals

 

Another way to challenge your sexual scripts regarding HSV is to externalize them.  Think of someone you care about, look at a picture of them, and say your sexual scripts as if you were pushing those expectations onto them (e.g., “You have too many sexual partners.  That’s why you have herpes.”).  How would it feel to say that to someone you care about?  Horrible?  Disgusting?  If so, perhaps that sexual expectation isn’t something that you should tell yourself.

Conclusion

Having HSV can be difficult for many reasons, one of which deals with sexual scripts.  Fortunately, there is also hope.  By acknowledging and challenging your sexual scripts related to HSV, you can create expectations that are actually fair and healthy.  Keep in mind that doing the above interventions will not instantly reduce or eliminate your negative thoughts and feelings regarding herpes.  Like all healthy habits, they take time and patience to form.  If you still need assistance with HSV and sexual scripts, schedule an online session.  You can also join an HSV support group at The Center for Growth.