Laureen HD is a YouTuber taking the shame out of living with herpes. When she contracted the virus in 2013, she turned to the internet for answers. Most of the resources she found were either too medical, too dramatic, too dismissive or, most importantly, completely unrelatable, lacking humanity, sympathy, or hope. She decided to take matters into her own hands and openly explore answers to the question: how do you manage living with herpes everyday?
And so Laureen began making YouTube videos, passing on her experience to help people living with herpes navigate normal, but normally difficult situations, like how to tell a partner you have genital herpes or whether or not to mention herpes in a Tinder bio. Laureen’s confessional honesty and simple explanations of complex medical questions provides a much-needed open forum for discussion. She is real and relatable, breaking down stigma with communication.
Berlin may be a socially progressive and sex-positive city, but even here misunderstood STIs can make people feel isolated and scared through a lack of information and guidance. Our Sex Life Editor, Kate Lis, met with Laureen to learn more about the challenges of navigating sex and STIs.
Full disclosure: I have herpes. The oral kind. I’ve never thought much about it. I live my life and there’s no big deal or stigma…genital herpes, though? I’ve been following your YouTube channel and I’ve realised my own ignorance and misinformation. So, what do we need to know about herpes?
I had the same realisation once I stepped outside of my self-inflicted shame. We hear a lot about herpes, but we don’t know a lot about it and when you start digging into the facts, that’s when you realise that, first of all, you can contract herpes genitally from someone who has cold sores when you have unprotected oral sex. So this perception that cold sores are not herpes or that they can only live “up there” isn’t true – they can both live in both places.
There are two types of Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) that are sexually transmittable – HSV I and HSV II, and eight or nine strains within its family – chickenpox and shingles are part of it. The medication I use to treat my herpes blisters is the same that I used to have for my chickenpox when I was a kid. Having all of these facts is very ‘de-dramatising’ for someone who has genital herpes to feel like, “okay, maybe I’ve never had genital herpes or met anyone who has it, but at least in my past I’ve encountered medication for my herpes.”
Real-life experiences are helpful to give people some tools to emotionally deal with the stigma. If you go online you mostly see articles with medical information or peer reviewed medical reports, which are informative but don’t make you feel better. They don’t address all the feelings you have – all the fears, all the concerns. I don’t have it all figured out, but I’m sure that if part of the solution relies on knowledge, another part on communication and conversation.
There seems to be a taboo around the simple distinction between the mouth and the genitals – a sad indication of sex-negativity. This essentially translates to, “if you have sex, you brought it upon yourself.”
Completely. And the reason most of us are here – exceptions for those conceived through IVF – is that two people had sex. Sex itself is not as taboo in the privacy of our lives, but somehow talking about sex – our health, our desires, what we like, what we don’t like – is still challenging.
One, because our parents who are supposed to teach us about life throughout our upbringing, tend to feel uncomfortable and unequipped to talk about sex with us. Two, because in schools, depending on where you grew up around the world, there’s either little or no sex education. When it is provided, it tends not to be comprehensive and doesn’t include all sexual orientations, or it’s very focused on reproduction. It instills a fear of sex, of diseases, but no one talks about the pleasure let alone under a positive light. Yet over a lifetime, the amount of times someone has sex to procreate, versus for pleasure tells the real story.
So if schools dramatise sex, culture sanitizes sex, porn fantasises sex,where can people turn to to get tools to learn about their bodies and desires – to understand what’s okay, what’s to be expected, what’s too far? You end up learning by experiences, often by mistakes. This trial and error is disastrous for some people. They have to go through extreme emotional trauma to learn where their boundaries are, and when and how to enforce them.
This is what the project Stevi Sesin and I worked on, Under My Skin, hones in on. It is about the journey someone diagnosed with an incurable STI goes through to reclaim their outlook on their body and self.
Yes! There’s a growing swell of DIY activism in sex education. But shouldn’t it be a public health matter? Why do you think governments and state medical institutions are avoiding these issues? Sex negativity again? Or ignorance?
I think it’s a bit of both. Herpes is not a top priority for pharmaceutical companies because it is almost medically irrelevant. For the vast majority, it is not life threatening, which is why it has not attracted the same state-sponsored research as cancer or HIV.
The state is just too far removed from the personal and they don’t seem to want to be seen to be encouraging sex for pleasure. The public is concerned that sex education for children and teenagers will put ideas into their head. No! They’re just going to grow up empowered with knowledge about sex and their bodies so that when they feel ready for a partnered sexual encounter, they don’t have to discover everything by themselves. Genuinely talking about sex – without stigma or shame – promotes education, not sex.
And I really like your point about DIY sex-educators. On my YouTube channel I call myself a self-taught sex-educator. Medical practitioners answer questions about conditions – they medicate medical cases. I consider feelings and emotions. I receive so many messages from people telling me their OBGYN or doctors gave their diagnosis, but gave no further information about what it means for the rest of your life– how to take care of your mental health, how to approach dating, etc. It’s just like, “you have herpes, a lot of people have it, and you’ll be fine.” DIY sex-educators can address the emotional shame, the stigma, and the fears. Thank God for technology and YouTube. Anyone can post their stories out there like I do, and a community where people can be there for one another can form.
How important is it to disclose your STI status? Couldn’t you just avoid the stigma, stay quiet and always have safe sex? What’s the moral responsibility?
That’s a good question, which to me only has one valid answer: disclose. One valuable thing to know about herpes is that it’s a skin condition. It’s transmittable via skin to skin contact and condoms can act as a barrier. But if the blister is not covered by the condom, it’s useless. And even if there are no physical symptoms, you can still shed particles of skin and transmit the virus. The whole annoying thing about herpes is you never know when you can transmit it or not. Using barrier methods during penetrative or oral sex considerably reduces the risk of transmission, as does being on suppressive therapy. But there’s still a responsibility to give people the opportunity to opt-in or opt-out of the reduced risk.
So it’s not like a cold sore where you see you have it and you know it’s contagious and then you can refrain from kissing…
Actually even with cold sores you can asymptomatically shed particles when you’re not experiencing any visible outbreaks. Studies have delivered conflicting results regarding when it occurs. Some say you shed particles of the virus when you’re having an outbreak both a few days before and after. Other studies say that it’s random, so whether it’s cold sores on your mouth or genital sores, the herpes virus sheds through dead skin even when there are no outbreaks. If you get to know your body really well, you can become really good at identifying the early signs of an outbreak and limit your sexual activity accordingly, but even then disclosure is always a must. Only then can you have fully consensual interactions.
I get so many messages from people who haven’t even had penis-in-vagina sex. They’ve only had oral sex, and now they have genital herpes. This is where our conversation is important – to increase awareness of the activities that might put you at risk. Once everyone talks about it, there’s no place for silence, secrets, and shame.
Some of the most popular videos on your YouTube channel address how to live with herpes – ‘How Do I Treat It?’ or ‘How Do I Tell A Partner?’ – is this the kind of information you wish you’d had access to earlier?
Yes. There was just no representation of people who live with STIs that could make you feel like you’re not a weirdo, you’re not unworthy of love, that you’re simply the same you and nothing has changed. And there was no help with how to go about those difficult, daunting conversations. In movies, everyone pretends like their STIs are not a thing – or if they are they’re the subject of a nasty joke. You don’t feel comfortable telling your parents and asking them for advice. This perpetuates stigma and silence. So people turn to the internet!
“Google, what’s wrong with me?”
Yeah! Help me! How do I live with it? How do I take care of my body? How do I protect my self-esteem? How do I talk to partners? How do I go on dating apps? Should I say it? Should I not say it? I take my YouTube channel as a bit of an experiment. Sometimes I talk about things that have happened to me, and sometimes I need to venture out and take one for the team and try out things just to see. Also to educate myself – it’s always super enriching.
Berlin is quite progressive and liberal about sex, sexuality, and sex culture. With the proliferation of sex-parties, orgies and chem-sex, sex is often very spontaneous and happens in a setting that usually involves drugs and alcohol. Is it really reasonable to expect open conversations about STIs in dark rooms? How do you navigate the playground of pleasure?
Well, I think unfortunately, health has to catch up with kink. And there is a tremendous sex appeal to conversation – communicating what you want and what your boundaries are. It might feel ridiculous to talk about sexual health in some scenarios, but I think not saying something because of the kinkiness of the situation reinforces the harm. It’s only awkward because we’re not used to having those conversations. I know some people who have gone to sex parties where getting tested and sharing your results before you enter the sex party is part of the protocol. This protocol takes away a lot of responsibilty and stress surrounding disclosure, so if you’re into casual sex or sex parties or group sex, it’s best to try to find places that create a safe space to play.
Grindr actually allows people to disclose their status on their profiles, so there’s total disclosure from the start. That means that any subsequent dating or physical or sexual interaction happens with full knowledge of what those interactions entail. We must encourage this comfort in disclosure. Now with COVID-19, people have realised that something as casual and innocent as gatherings or close proximity carry risks,and sex has finally gotten a break from being the ‘bad guy’ to blame for catching diseases. Also, asking people if they’ve gotten tested has become more normalised, so I’d encourage anyone to extend the COVID testing conversations to STIs as well.
Keep up to date with Laureen on YouTube and Instagram, see the full The Art of Loving YourSelfie:Under My Skin series by Stevi Sesin and Laureen HD at instagram.com/talys_undermyskin and enjoy the episodes of Kate Lis’ Sex Salon Podcast via BearRadio.