Sex + Gender
Queer + Feminist
Social theory + Cultural Critique
Do you believe that sex is a basic human need? Is it necessary to have a healthy sex life to have a happy, fulfilling, and stable life?
A question by Anonymous
These are two great questions, but I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. I think sexuality, in all of its forms (including asexuality, which IS a sexuality) is intrinsic to the human experience. Considering it a basic human need, however, is a difficult question to consider. Our sense of identity/self is always tied up with sexuality and sexual awareness. This is not easily extractable as some singular ‘biological’ expression of human consciousness, but also a constant moment-to-moment negotiation with societies and cultures that are saturated with sexuality. Furthermore, as social people, we are constantly negotiating the sexuality of others and situating ourselves in relation to that as well. So, is the act of sex a basic human need? For some people, yes. For others, no. Has it become a fundamental part of our human socio-cultural experience? Yes, I would say it has - even if only in a symbolic sense. Regarding your last question, I would argue it is not universally necessary to have a healthy sex life in order to live a happy, fulfilling, and stable life. Not in the slightest. There are plenty of people who are ace, demi, or celibate (there are many, many shades of sexuality here) that are leading wonderful and beautiful lives. I suppose the last thing I will say here is that I am always very reluctant to extract something like sex, for instance, and thing of it as a singular modality of life. Nothing is ever extractable. Everything is tied up together, just like a rhizome. We cannot think of sex without thinking of economics, history, gender, race, ability, geography, language etc. These things are constantly in conversation with each other affecting the way an individual comes to understand the self and then relate with the outer world.
But just because we can control a lot of what we do for our health, that doesn’t mean that we can control our health itself. And all of this takes a much darker turn when we start to look at people who are sick and wonder what they did “wrong.”
Shedding the Wounded Attachment: A Self-Reflexive Journey of Over-identifying with Disease and the Possibilities of What Lies Beyond
This is my final honors thesis, written for the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at UC Berkeley. It is the culmination of 5 years of academic and activist work surrounding genital herpes. The entire paper is available after the break and might explain why you will see me blogging less about HSV.
“Before herpes, I didn’t think about my body much. But the virus had jolted me into self-awareness.”
- Anonymous, ‘The Perks of Herpes’
As a teenager, I took generous liberties with my body. I desperately wanted to move beyond the lowly childhood-in-between and advance to that gritty, autonomous, and perfect state of ‘adulthood’. I naively believed that the more physical pleasure and emotional turmoil I experienced the faster I would embody my fantasy of maturity. Looking out into the world, it seemed to me that one ‘found themselves’ in sexual escapades and tumultuous relationships. I glorified the wounds of life as badges of honor, but never did I ever imagine that one of my so-called badges would be genital herpes.
One morning, soon after my twentieth birthday, I awoke to hundreds of tiny blisters all over my genitals. Terrified and experiencing pain unlike anything I had felt before, I snuck out of my sister’s house to visit my local clinic. By the time I had finished my gynecological exam, I felt entirely overcome by shame, guilt, and fear. What had I done to myself, I thought? The blisters that engulfed me were not the wounds I had intended to find on my journey to adulthood; they were not a part of the story I had told myself about what my life would be like. As if walking through some invisible door, my diagnoses instantaneously and fundamentally shifted the way I understood who I was. I was no longer the same person with the same future that I once was, but someone else enduring what seemed like some primordial punishment for my sexual transgressions.
Eight years has passed since my diagnosis and I no longer feel as negatively about myself as I once did. After spending the last five years entirely dedicating my academic and activist work to understanding all that I can about the condition, I have come to a place of cessation. However, the journey to this place of acceptance has been complicated and has potentially larger implications of what identity means entirely. This paper attempts to explore this journey, while considering the larger social and historical processes that have contributed to what it means to have genital herpes.
First, I argue that the potency of genital herpes stigma continues to thrive and annunciate itself due to its medical legacy as always being understood through historically situated understandings of morality and biological purity. Rather than the innocent yet unfortunate mutation of cells in breast tissue, causing breast cancer for example, genital herpes is a virus that has always been understood as a virus that infects those who ‘deserve it’. As such, we don’t see charities forming for the sole purpose of raising funds to find a cure or a uniquely colored bow to wear in solidarity with our ‘herpetic’ brothers and sisters. At the bottom of the illness hierarchy, genital herpes creepily crawls along, forcing those of us who share our bodies with the virus to reconstitute our sense of self within very limited terms.
The limitations of these terms force those of us with genital herpes to often turn to identity politics to empower the process of reconstituting our identity. My own life exemplifies this coercion to identity politics. In the early years of my diagnoses, I desperately sought an empowered image of myself, which included my condition. Seemingly, no other resources existed. I knew in some deeply intuitive sense that, despite the effectiveness of genital herpes stigma, what I was being told about who I was wasn’t true. I was not dirty, I was not marked, and I was not tainted. I needed a way to explain this, not only to myself but also to others who would undoubtedly need to know about my viral-relationship. I needed a new language to explain myself that didn’t buy into the historical proliferated discourse that assumed by body as filthy. Identity politics became a successful model in which to outwardly and inwardly reorganize my subjecthood, while providing a means for activist work. My blog, The Sex Uneducated, which was born out of this kind of feminist political framework, became a popular virtual space for people to find safety and an empowered message about living with genital herpes. With almost 30,000 subscribers, my posts and YouTube videos became a resource for reimagining life with a sexually transmitted disease as well as evidence that I was not alone in my personal seeking. However, after devoting five years of my life to the politics of the ‘diseased identity’ in both personal and academic realms, I have found myself feeling uncomfortably bound to my herpes identity, as if it were the single axis of my orbit. As theorist Wendy Brown so accurately argues, “politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics; it can hold out no future – for itself or others – that triumphs over this pain” (Wounded 74). I have been beginning to feel that each day that I blog or research my condition, I paradoxically reinforce its stigma and the illusion that it is central to my existence, illuminating the ways in which an identity politic may keep many of us devoted to the work entrapped by our diagnoses.
Lastly, I hope to explore what the limits of identity politics may reveal about possible futures in which disease is thought of in more porous terms. Expanding on Nancy Tuana’s articulation of viscous porosity and interactionism, which she describes as terms that help to critique the “divide between nature/culture, natural/artificial” because “these distinctions, while at times useful, are metaphysically problematic,” I hope to consider what lies beyond the dualism of human and non-human (202). Just as we will all die, we will all get sick. The answers to how, when, and under what circumstances we become ill should not potentially materialize as some primordial angel of social death, nor should the answers to these questions conversely relegate us to over-identifying with our condition. Instead, let us consider how viewing our world, from the cellular to the social, as profoundly amalgamous and in a constant state of indiscriminatory biological exchange could help us re-imagine what it actually means to be alive.
A Theoretical Understanding of Genital Herpes Discourse
This is a segment of my most recent research paper, “Discursive Limits: How Medical Discourse Produces Genital Herpes Stigma” at UC Berkeley.
In Archaeology of Knowledge, theorist Michel Foucault argues that, “in every society the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed” (216). Discourse, or authoritative knowledge that is produced through speech acts and writing, is never neutral. For Foucault, discourse is quite the opposite; knowledge production is inherently intertwined with power and desire, having profound affect on subjectivity, perceptions of behavior, and the construction of institutions (216). So what then are the implications of authoritative writing about and around disease? Science, and medicine in particular, speaks with finality; medicinal knowledge is perceived as unquestioned truth and concrete knowledge. However, as Foucault explains, the discipline of “medicine does not consist of all that may be truly said about disease” (223). For all that is written about disease, there is equally that which is not uttered. These omissions, or ‘prohibitions’ as Foucault calls them, illuminate the fundamental fact that, “we are not free to say just anything, that we cannot simply speak of anything when we like or where we like, not just anyone, finally, may speak of just anything” (216). Thus the experience of genital herpes is only ever authoritatively materialized through the discursive processes of science and medicine, producing a particularly stringent and clinical image of who and how the virus infects, while largely ignoring other obverse complexities of equal validity.
We can see this most clearly when we examine the CDC’s recommendations for avoiding contraction/transmission of genital herpes. They offer only this: “The surest way to avoid transmission of …genital herpes is to abstain from sexual contact, or to be in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and is known to be uninfected” (CDC). As an authoritative epistemological site, literally shaping the ‘reality’ of what it means to live with this condition, in a single sentence the CDC reduces a life with herpes to a sexless journey or one confined to a single body willing to ‘take the risk’. Although their recommendations are certainly viable and can work for a variety of individuals, just like suggesting one could not walk in order to avoid scraping their knee, their suggestions are difficult to live up to for the sexually active who will typically have multiple sexual partners prior to entering into a long-term relationship. By framing the ‘best’ way to avoid contraction/transmission as abstinence, rather than providing a multitude of options that acknowledge variations of sexuality, kinship formations, and sexual orientations, the CDC exemplifies Foucault’s notion of ‘prohibitions’. As he argues, “in appearance, speech may be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power” (216). Potential alternative lifestyle options that the CDC chooses to discursively withhold from the readership of their genital herpes webpage lead the analytical eye to observe two things: 1) according to the CDC, the herpes population should not be sexually active, or only in restrictive ways and 2) that transmission should be avoided at all costs. In gesturing towards these two finalities, the CDC condones people with genital herpes who are having sex with multiple partners, who aren’t practicing monogamy, and, with an emphasis on preventing transmission, villainize the oftentimes-unavoidable act of transmitting.
These two observations are haunted by the 19th century shift in discursive focus on sex and sexuality. In The History of Sexuality: Volume I, Foucault explains that:
Claiming to speak the truth, [science] stirred up people’s fears: to the least oscillations of sexuality, it ascribed an imaginary dynasty of evils destined to be passed on for generations; it declared the furtive customs of the timid, and the most solitary of petty manias, dangerous for the whole society; strange pleasures, it warned, would eventually result in nothing short of death (54).
In ending their information page with the foreclosure of ones ability to be sexually spontaneous, while the preceding sections simultaneously focus on “complications,” “the link between genital herpes and HIV,” and how herpes can “affect a pregnant woman and her baby,” the CDC produces an image of the condition as something certainly to be afraid of and one that will cause a kind of ‘social’ death (Gruter & Masters 150).
Like a rhetorical map, the CDC’s genital herpes webpage linguistically connotes to readers precisely why and how they can socially ostracize those living with the condition, which becomes the same source for the HSV positive community to ostracize themselves. Literary theorist, Roland Barthes, argues that connotations are “naturalized as hegemonic, that is, accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’” and thus produce what he considers myths (Barker & Galasinski 5). Through this theoretical lens, we can critique, not necessarily the epidemiological information the CDC provides about genital herpes, but the way in which they utilize language to frame and produce an ostracizing myth, naturalizing herpes as a condition that is always contagious, always linked to HIV, and always complicates pregnancies, which predominantly functions in proliferating stigma.
In thinking of stigma and the notion of social death, we can call upon sociological theorist Irving Goffman when he says, “by definition of course, we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human” (Stigma 5). Within the first paragraph of the CDC’s genital herpes information page, in a short section titled, “How Common is Genital Herpes,” the CDC uses the term ‘infected’ synonymously with ‘person/persons’. In a section only consisting of 117 words, they use ‘infection/infected’ 7 times, all as the subject of the sentence or as adjectives to describe the subject, which has the linguistic affect of shifting people with genital herpes from what could be considered a ‘healthy’ person to certainly someone who isn’t ‘quite human,’ but is most decidedly and perhaps most importantly ‘infected’ (CDC). Goffman posits in his seminal book, Stigma: Notes on the Management of the Spoiled Identity that:
[Society] constructs a stigma-theory, an ideology to explain [another’s] inferiority and account for the danger he represents, sometimes rationalizing an animosity based on other differences, such as those of social class. We use specific terms such as cripple, bastard, moron in our daily discourse as a source of metaphor and imagery, typically without giving thought to the original meaning (5).
In focusing on ‘infection’ and referring to the bodies that carry the virus as ‘infected’, the CDC establishes a discourse that connotes people with genital herpes as inferior, dangerous through ‘contagiousness’, and provides a multitude of terms for society to use in their efforts to stigmatize genital herpes while naturalizing the conditions perils through their authoritative lens.
So there is this fellowship that UC Berkeley offers and I’m going to apply for it for the purposes of starting an alternative high-school sex education class. I want to rally up a diverse group of young, STD+ folks who are comfortable talking about their respective condition to a group of high school seniors. One of the biggest barriers to effective sex education, in addition to the emphasis on abstinence, is that students typically do not relate to the teacher providing the information. This happens for a variety of reasons - social differences, like race, age, etc. and a displacement of authority. I think if a group of young, diverse, STD+ folks came and operated an STD workshop, some AMAZING teaching/learning could take place for ALL parties involved. Stigma could be addressed, queerness could be talked about, the REALITIES of STD’s (how they’re contracted, how they are managed, how they are lived with, ways of avoiding transmission, treatment resources for a variety of socio-economic needs etc.)
Y”ALL I HOPE I GET THIS FELLOWSHIP and DO YOU THINK THIS IS A GOOD IDEA?
I JUST SUBMITTED MY APPLICATION I JUST SUBMITTED MY APPLICATION!!!!
Y’ALL! IF I GET THIS IT WILL BE SO AMAZING!!!! I WILL NEED YOUR HELD! I WILL NEED TWO-THREE AMAZING BAY AREA STD+ SOULS TO HELP FLIP THE SCRIPT ON SEX ED!!! AND I WILL BE ABLE TO REIMBURSE YOU! MONEY Y’ALL!!! WHAT?
Don’t find out until April …. I WILL KEEP YOU POSTED!!!!
Many find they have more interest in sex during the fertile days of their cycle.
In the case of couples who have trouble conceiving, the cause of the infertility is is as likely to be the cause of either person’s fertility issues. Determining the cause of infertility is often difficult.
Sperm development takes place in the testicles (which sit inside the scrotum). Proper sperm development requires a cooler than normal body temperature. Because the scrotum is located outside the body, it maintains this cooler temperature. Constant heat around the scrotum (for example, working near a furnace or wearing tight pants and underwear that increase the body temperature of the scrotum/testicles) can reduce sperm count
As people age their fertility declines, although those designated the male sex are able to be fertile their entire lives after the onset of puberty
a normal sperm count is tens of millions of sperm with each ejaculation.
Sperm mature in the testicles in about 75 days
the human body produces about a liter of saliva every 24 hours.
Once can tell when they are ovulating by observing simple changes in the mucus that passes out of their vagina. in this way, they can know when they are fertile (can become pregnant), and they can predict on which day their menstrual period is due. They can use this information either to take measures to avoid pregnancy or to try to become pregnant
near the end of pregnancy, a person’s hip joints loosen. this enables the pelvis to expand, making it easier for the baby to move through the pelvic area. Sometimes a person has to be careful about moving about late in their pregnancy, because the loosening joints can make her feel wobbly
in rare instances, a person releases two eggs rather than one. if both are fertilized, fraternal (nonidentical) twins will develop. if a single egg is fertilized and then undergoes an extra cell division at a very early stage, identical twins will develop. Fraternal twins have genes like any two siblings, but identical twins come from the same nucleus. they have almost identical Dna (genes).
the sex of a fetus is determined by the sperm, not by the egg.
Going Viral: Musings on an Alternative Cosmology of the Dis-eased Body
The following is a recent paper I wrote. It is far from perfect and entirely incomplete. The term ‘musings’ in the title suggests this imperfection, but I hope this could be beneficial to some who are interested.
When I was a child I wanted to be a witch. I would collect books on witchcraft from the school library and gather the neighborhood kids in my garage to concoct mysterious elixirs from my mothers cleaning supplies. When I wasn’t busy researching pagan rituals, I dreamt of being a teacher, a thespian, the sixth member of the Spice Girls, or a runaway. As time passed, I began to imagine my future self in more complicated ways. I envisioned the houses I would own and with whom I might live with. I imagined distant vacations and sloppy queer romances. Sometimes I fantasized about life’s tragedies; while driving I might picture myself smashing into the car next to me or, in rare moments of terrifyingly profound silence, I may forcibly allow the ever-impending and paradoxically unimaginable death of my parents to wash over me. Yet, never did I ever imagine I would contract genital herpes.
Getting ‘sick’ or becoming ‘infected’ was never a plot point in the stories I told myself about what it meant to be a good person with a fulfilling life; the ever evolving hologram of my projected future self was, despite all knowledge of unavoidable loss and pain, able-bodied. In the films I saw and in the books I read, the people who ‘contracted’ a ‘disease’ or experienced ‘chronic illness’ were people in complex situations or in geographical locations too far away for my imagination to reach towards. A virus like herpes, one that doesn’t kill or devour a body but takes up residence in your dorsal root ganglia and inexplicably enacts its will upon your genitals as if it were some phantom of previous sex and shameful desires, were never spoken of, written down, or gestured towards as possible. Even in sex education classes, of which one poor soul of a high school teacher imparted such limited knowledge upon a classroom of ears that were never listening, genital herpes was like an extraterrestrial; on another planet and in another realm the body becomes one with a virus, but never ever here and never ever now.
To all my amazing followers and beyond, I need your help! Please take about 5-10 minutes to fill out this 6 question survey! This is for my senior thesis at UC Berkeley. For those who don’t know, I study Gender and Women’s Studies and I largely focus on medical discourses and the regulation of bodies. This survey is REALLY important and will help me finish my final paper! Please reblog and take the survey! BE HONEST and don’t hold back. The more honest you are, the more useful it will be.
I am a final psychology undergraduate at Northumbria University, and I am currently recruiting 18-25 year olds to take part in my project research. I am investigating young adult’s knowledge of sexually transmitted infections, their attitudes towards them, and motivations for testing.
Could you possibly advertise my study on your blog? All it involves is completing an online questionnaire, which should take no longer than 15 minutes and is completely anonymous. If anyone would like to take part this link will take them directly to the questionnaire; https://surveymonkey.com/s/STIquestionnaire.
If you would like more information about this study, please email Hannah Harwood at email@example.com.
This research has received full ethical approval from the Department of Psychology Ethics Committee (Undergraduate) in accordance with Northumbria University ethics and governance regulations.
Thank you! Any participation is massively appreciated. :)
Thank you for this site. My friend directed me to you when I broke the news to her that I have herpes (& was swiftly falling into the shame spiral & doomsday thoughts associated w/ the news). I look forward to sharing my story for your research, but for now, I need a trusted source to answer some simple questions I never had to consider before: is it appropriate for me to get a bikini wax at a salon, or will I be denied service after telling the esthetician I have herpes?
A question by Anonymous
Hi! Thank you so much for checking out the blog and I am so happy that it has helped you in some way. Regarding the bikini wax: you do not have to disclose this information to them as the virus is transmitted through skin to skin contact and they use wax paper, often with gloves. If you decided to disclose this information and were denied service, I think you would have legal case on your hands! However, I would warn you against getting waxed as waxing can oftentimes bring on an expression. Some of my worst expressions have been from waxing/shaving. This is something you will have to experiment with however, as every body is different. You might need to switch up your self-care routine! I hope this helps? :)
First I'd like to say that you have gotten me through my HSV 1 (genitally) diagnosis. But this question doesn't necessarily have to do with that but more about myself as a person. I've always been, but even more so after the diagnosis I'm a very sexually open person, I love talking about sex and I'm so open about myself and how I feel or what i want. This tends to scare guys away. Am i supposed to tone myself down?! Why is it me being a girl and loving sex is so taboo, makes guys run?
Hi there! From one incredibly sexual self person to another, there is NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU. I have had many people be afraid of my sexuality, judge me for it, etc. But I am who I am and I can’t change myself, particularly in that sense. Don’t allow the fears of other people to coerce you into “toning yourself down” - you are who you are and your sexuality operates the way that it does, and that is that. Historically, women* have been socialized to believe that we should be pure, chaste, nurturing, “well-behaved”, passive, domestic, private etc. This trope of “successful womanhood” can be seen almost everywhere within culture, particularly in Western cultures or nations who have a history of colonization, and everyone is socialized in accordance with these gender constructions. Of course, these notions of femininity are not necessarily true, fixed, or universal. Your sexuality, as does mine, brings these apparently “naturalized” notions into question which makes people uncomfortable. For men*, masculinity is constructed directly in opposition to these hegemonic notions of femininity (this is the gender binary at work). For example, if women* are passive then men* get to be active. If women* are private then men* are public etc. Men* are socialized into believing that “successful masculinity” is as the sexual aggressor, seeker, initiator, teacher etc. Women* who prevent this from happening complicate and disrupt the norms (which gets even more complicated when we look at lesbianism/queer practices etc). The advice I would give you is that you are fine just as you are and trust that sexual partners who are intimidated by your sexuality are likely partners you wouldn’t want to have anyway. I assure you that there are plenty of fantastic people out there who will be entirely welcoming and excited by your fascination and enjoyment of sex :)
This was written by a student about her experience being diagnosed with genital HSV1, and was published by Ottowa University’s Fulcrum in January, 2013.
Bonus: A beautiful piece of artwork.
I love this and I love seeing people write about their experience, raising awareness. However, I see some interesting things at work in the article which are still very harmful. Considering herpes as the “consequence” of poor sexual choices or the punishment one suffers due to choosing the “wrong” sexual partner is part of how herpes stigma operates as a regulatory mechanism in society. I argue against this - herpes is a virus, like any other virus, that is contracted in a particular kind of way and functions in the body in a particular kind of way as well. Imbuing the condition as moral and ethical afterthought keeps the HSV+ body in the cycle of sexually abject. All STI’s, both bacterial and viral, are simply a reality for the sexually active population (herpes stigma works to make sure those of us who have feel we cannot have sex, cannot reproduce and shouldn’t be in sexually active relationships). They are not natures way of “punishing” who fuck and fuck in certain ways. Society has simply co-opted the infections and used them to ensure certain people are having sex, having sex in particular ways and that those people then reproduce. The stigma around herpes is evidence of the insidiousness of modern eugenic discourses. Additionally, the writer continues to frame HSV as something she has “caught”. This is further evidence of herpes stigma at work - to really revolutionize the way we view STD/STI’s, we have to completely rethink the human body and its relationship to non-humans. We are more bacterial genes than we are human. We are constantly coming into contact with bacteria and viruses, a constant and symbiotic relationship that helps to reproduce the other. Its not about “catching” its about coming into contact with and then accommodating. The rhetoric of “catching” reproduces “contagion myths” which are deeply rooted in colonial histories. We didn’t catch anything nor are we the embodied consequence of sexual transgressions.