The sexual plague that time forgot

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The Independent Culture
I NEVER caught genital herpes. I never woke up one morning, between three and 14 days after having sex with somebody, to find myself covered in scabs and sores. But as an idea, a Zeitgeist, a sneak preview, a rumour, a paranoid moment in the history of sexual culture, herpes really caught on. Boy, did it catch on. People used to talk about nothing else. They used to wash their hands when they'd touched something a rumoured sufferer had touched. And look at it now. How the mighty have fallen.

So - what did you do for the tenth anniversary of genital herpes? Did anybody even remember? I don't think I've had a conversation about it for half of the last decade. And what would the conversation consist of anyway? It would be pure nostalgia. You'd talk about it almost with longing, remembering a time when being 'paranoid' really was worrying about things that didn't exist, or almost didn't exist. About nine years ago, I remember watching an American movie, the only herpes movie ever made to my knowledge, in which a woman has sex with a man, catches herpes and becomes stigmatised and suicidal. She rages around in a frenzy of guilt and self-loathing, screaming and crying, with psychiatrists whispering condolences and her mother wondering whether or not to disown her. At the time, this didn't seem to be nonsense - this looked like realism. And what did the girl have? What was her problem? It was this: she had a few cold sores.

But the event of herpes - the culture of herpes - was an instructive preview. Herpes, although it turned out to be nothing much, told us exactly how we, as a society, felt about sex. We were deeply guilty about it. People wanted herpes, they were desperate for it, for something which vindicated their ideas, their family values. I remember, in the Seventies, my parents saying: 'But what if you catch thrush or something?' and me saying: 'Well, then I'll get rid of it,' and my parents telling me that was not the point - that's not how I should be thinking. And they were comparatively liberal. So when herpes came along (or did it? Or had it been there all along?), people were triumphant. The trouble was, it seems to me, they jumped the gun. They made fools of themselves.

The first thing that happened, I remember, was a documentary. This was 1982. I didn't actually see the documentary, and I never met anybody who had seen the documentary. Nobody told me, for instance, who had made it. Like most documentaries, it must have had its elements of speculation, of exaggeration. But the news spread fast, by word of mouth. It was this: there was a new sexual disease.

It was worse than anything else on the block. It had appalling effects - not death, not quite, but sores and scabs which would cause untold pain and suffering. And embarrassment. Most importantly, it was incurable. This was the fact which stuck.

Nobody, yet, had made the cold sore connection. So it sounded like something exotic, possibly tropical, terrifying in its implications. But, for the first couple of months, people didn't quite grasp it. Some passed it off as a rumour. There were no big-money government campaigns, no highly politicised pressure groups. It wasn't a left-wing thing to rail about. It was, at first, simply a new disease.

Then the atmosphere changed. Looking back, it seemed for a while like it could have gone either way; it could either have been really big, or really nothing. People were waiting to be told whether to worry about it or not. They did. I remember the first person somebody pointed out to me as a sufferer; subsequently, this was the main thing about him. People sat in their student rooms, discussing the presumed state of his genitals. There was a medication, a cream, that people were supposed to use, and this came up in nasty, filthy jokes; I can't remember the name of it now.

The next thing should have been obvious, but took a while to catch on. If he had it, what about the people he had slept with? This captured people's imagination like nothing else. You could trace long lines of sexual contacts, titillate yourself with the proximity of the disease to you. For the first time, people's sexual histories became a matter of self-righteous contention; another sneak preview of the future. I remember one girl telling me, with shaking voice, how she 'nearly caught herpes', how, but for a missed train, she would have slept with a man who had slept with a girl, who, she was pretty sure, had it.

Or who had slept with somebody who had it. Do you remember when this kind of conversation seemed new?

But, at first, nobody knew anything about the medical details. Did people suffer all the time? Could it be passed on all the time? This was the first assumption, the original rumour. If someone had it, they had it. They were finished. Then there was another rumour - more sophisticated, more realistic. The disease had a long latent spell, and flamed into life periodically. What governed the cycles? In the collective mind, there was nothing to go on, except for how promiscuous or dirty people appeared to be; I remember a few women being heavily stigmatised. It was already beginning to fuel - and provide material to endorse - people's age-old, and worst, prejudices.

But it passed me by entirely. In my life, the whole episode amounted to nothing more than two years of talk - a useful nursery-slope, perhaps, for the decade of rumour and counter-rumour that was to follow. But just talk. How widespread was it? Nobody ever knew. Who really had it? Nobody ever found out. Was it really incurable? Probably. But later, after things got much worse in this particular zone of life, I heard that, with most people, it just went away. Anyway, one day, somebody told me that there was another sexual disease coming, a sequel, much more vicious and terrible. And this time, people were really triumphant. This time, they weren't going to make fools of themselves.-