I was strolling along in downtown Montreal the other day, and I walked past Crescent Street, or the area of town my ex charmingly refers to as “Hetsville.” As usual, there were small crowds of well-dressed men and women here and there on the sidewalk, going out for a slightly too-expensive dinner and drinks, or going to a strip club or cruising in a fancy car to impress other people. When I paused to wait for a light, I overheard a snippet of conversation between two men who both looked to be in their early forties.
“What’s that on your face?”
“It doesn’t look like nothing. It looks like one of those marks, you know, the kind you don’t like on women.”
I sneaked a glance, and it looked to me as though one gentleman had a herpes sore on his mouth. And then the light changed, and so I moved along.
I’m not sure why, a week later, this little exchange is still with me, popping into mind every once in a while when my brain is idle. Perhaps it’s that there’s something about the operation of shame in their conversation that really struck me. Something about the visibility of illness or disease, particularly of the sexually transmitted variety, that was significant. I wonder if the guy with herpes will think twice about going out in public, to his sexual stomping grounds, wearing visible evidence of his contagion, now that he knows his friend has noticed. Clearly he’s been pretty frank about his own opinions of people who have herpes, and vocally enough that his friend knew it, and – perhaps I’m extrapolating here – obnoxiously enough that his friend felt it was now fair game to mock him now that the tables were turned.
I wonder if the guy who noticed his friend’s sore has herpes, or another STI, himself, and if so, how he chooses to manage it. I wonder if they’ve had sex with the same women. I wonder if the guy without a sore made his comment to boost his own feeling of security or superiority because of his own insecurity or fear around exactly this thing, or if he was just being rude. I wonder what sort of behaviour they both exhibit toward the women they have sex with, and if that behaviour changes based on whether those women have visible evidence of an STI. I wonder if this conversation would have looked the same way if it had taken place between two women, or a woman and a man, or in a different language or a different part of town, or between dykes, or between gay men.
I have no answers to any of this, but I’m fascinated at the ruminations that a conversation between two strangers has inspired. We load so much meaning on STIs. We see them as dirty, as punishment, as evidence of moral inferiority, and all this is based on the persistent idea that sex itself is dirty, sinful, morally suspect. And yet, I have a feeling that in this case, as in so many others, on some level, many STIs are really the luck of the draw. This isn’t to say I’m not a believer in safer sex. I very much am. But kissing is generally not considered to be high-risk behaviour; it’s often the first thing we do with a new partner, the easiest thing to do with a stranger, in some ways even the most socially approved manner of connecting sexually (as in, you can do it in public places and nobody blinks). And yet it’s also a quick and easy route for something like herpes to be transmitted, regardless of whether a sore is actually present in either partner at the time. And if that conversation is any indication, herpes still holds the power of shame, regardless of the approved-of behaviour that might bring it on.
I think it’s just difficult to separate the legitimate desire to protect our own health from the much more complex emotional reality of shame, disgust, fear and social stigma that comes part and parcel with the existence of STIs. I wonder what it would look like if we could create a fantasy world in which people dealt with disease (not to mention dis/ability and all sorts of other body-related stigmatized differences) without imposing all sorts of meanings on it. I wonder what STI transmission rates would look like, how quickly medical treatments would be provided to populations in need, what sort of priority research would take, what dollars would flow where, who would live and who would die. I wonder what sorts of choices people would make around their health, and about disclosing information about it. I wonder what the world would look like then. I wonder what kind of conversations would take place there.