Commentary Sexual Health

R&B Star Usher May Have Herpes and You Could Too

Martha Kempner

But don't panic. Sexually transmitted infections are not scarlet letters. They are facts of life—and you can live with herpes.

Unless you’ve been living in a news blackout for the last week, you probably know that singer-songwriter Usher allegedly both has herpes and gave it to at least one woman. Celebrity news site RadarOnline.com recently released what it claims are court papers showing that the Grammy-winning singer had settled a 2012 lawsuit with a woman who alleges he gave her the incurable sexually transmitted infection (STI).

The woman, who is being identified only as a celebrity stylist, argued in court papers that Usher Raymond “consciously and purposefully” failed to tell her of his infection and yet continued to have unprotected sex with her. She further claimed that she had suffered “severe emotional distress” as a result of the diagnosis and felt “her health and her body had been ruined.”

Assuming that these records are real (they were heavily redacted), Usher apparently settled with her for $1.1 million, including $2,740 in health-care costs. But this doesn’t mean he agreed with her arguments, or even that he had herpes in the first place. The internet is buzzing with his supposed STI status, and other entertainment sites report that another woman says he gave her herpes and is now suing for $10 million.

While Usher and his attorneys deal with the new lawsuit, the rest of us can use this time to learn more about herpes and fight the stigma that is too frequently associated with STIs.

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Did Usher Really Give Her Herpes?

The details of the herpes story are sketchy, but it seems that the woman in question was diagnosed with herpes after suffering from fever, chills, and vaginal sores.

Blisters or sores on the genitals or mouth are the signature symptoms of sexually transmitted herpes, which is caused by one of two viruses (HSV-1 or HSV-2). The first time an individual has an outbreak of herpes, they may also feel flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, or swollen glands. Some people only have one herpes outbreak; others may have have frequent recurrences.

While Usher’s accuser may have been having a first herpes outbreak with those symptoms, that does not necessarily mean that she had just been infected. According to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), it can take weeks, months, or years for symptoms to appear. For some people, the initial reaction is so mild they don’t even notice. It’s hard to pinpoint when an individual got the virus and, therefore, who gave it to them.

Some of the reports about Usher cite the woman’s recollection of a “greenish discharge” from his penis as proof that he was infected with herpes when they had sex. But this does not seem accurate. Penile discharge is not normally associated with herpes infection, though it is often a sign of bacterial STIs such as gonorrhea or chlamydia.

Reports also vary about whether Usher knew he had the virus, if he does; some reports say he was diagnosed with it in either 2009 or 2010, and others just say he was exposed to it at that time.

Of course, according to the World Health Organization, two of three adults younger than age 50 had HSV-1 as of 2012. That’s 3.7 billion people worldwide. Meanwhile, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six people from 14 to 49 years old have HSV-2. Given those numbers, it’s relatively likely our pop star is among them.

Still, we don’t know for sure that he has it. We may never truly know if he gave it to the celebrity stylist in 2012, the woman who filed the newest lawsuit, or anyone else he slept before or after he became famous.

Should Usher Be Punished?

There are precedents for punishing people who knowingly transmit HIV, STIs, or other communicable diseases. In California, where this lawsuit was initially filed, it’s a misdemeanor for anyone who has an infectious or communicable disease to expose others to it knowingly. Another law makes it a criminal offense to intentionally infect someone with HIV—though some legislators recently proposed downgrading the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor.

While these laws may seem good in theory at first, especially when you think of a lifelong health condition, they are rarely enforced. And with good reason. Even if Usher didn’t tell his sexual partners about his health—which is irresponsible—punishment is still not the way to go.

As Deborah Arrindell, vice president of health policy at ASHA, told Rewire in an email: “Laws that criminalize exposure to STIs may have unintended consequences—they stigmatize a public health issue and may be a disincentive for persons to be tested.” She added: “Findings from research on HIV criminalization laws suggest that they do not decrease infections or have any other positive public health impacts.” It’s not in the interest of our public health to penalize people for a health condition.

On another practical level, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to determine who gave what disease to whom. And that could easily lead to punishing the wrong person.

Moreover, these laws hinge on intent, which is hard to prove. Some people who pass on an STI may be willfully trying to infect others, but it’s hard to believe that most people are operating with malicious intent. They may not understand transmission—some infections, herpes included, can be passed even with protected sex. They may genuinely think they don’t pose a risk to their partners. People with herpes, for example, are not always contagious, especially if they are taking antiviral medications. Or they may not be thinking about STI transmission at all in the heat of the moment.

This is why it’s so important for partners to talk to each other about sex and STIs early on in their relationship (and preferably when everyone is clothed and not distracted by arousal). If Usher had, in fact, been diagnosed with herpes before having sex with this woman, he should have been honest and explained his history and her risks to the best of his knowledge. Then she could have made an informed decision. Maybe she would have had unprotected sex with him anyhow, maybe she would have walked away, or maybe she would have come back with a 12-pack of ribbed condoms.

The only way we are ever going to end the cycle of STIs is to make sure that people who have them get tested and treated. If knowing your STI status opens you up for criminal prosecution or, in Usher’s case, million-dollar lawsuits, people may avoid testing altogether.

Is Her Life Really ‘Ruined’?

People with herpes can and do lead perfectly happy, healthy lives. But it is understandable that the woman who was involved with Usher and others become very distressed when diagnosed because herpes is an incurable, painful infection that’s also very stigmatized.

Herpes cannot be cured, but its impact varies dramatically depending according how often and how severely a person gets outbreaks. Antiviral drugs can help manage herpes. Some people take these medications daily to prevent outbreaks. Others take them for a week to ten days when they feel an outbreak starting, in order to lessen its severity and duration.

People in the middle of a herpes outbreak may get some relief from pain medication such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. Women may also want to try peeing in a bathtub or shower—warm water can help soothe the pain caused by urine hitting open sores.

But much of what the woman who sued Usher may be feeling comes not from the disease itself but from the stigma that surrounds it. There is a lingering idea that STIs are a sign of being dirty, foolish, or promiscuous. Or that they are somehow proof of a character flaw or lack of morality.

It is estimated that one of every six people in the United States has genital herpes. There were 1.5 million cases of chlamydia, more than 300,000 cases of gonorrhea, and about 75,000 cases of syphilis reported to the CDC in 2015. And the CDC writes “that HPV (the human papillomavirus) is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.”

These STIs are not scarlet letters. They are facts of life. They are health conditions.

We shouldn’t punish anyone who has an STI or judge them while they feel worthlessness and shame. And we shouldn’t be punishing the person who gave them the STI either.

Instead, we should all do our best to prevent the rampant spread of STIs. Get tested regularly. Treat curable STIs immediately. Contact (or help the health department contact) any former partners who might also be infected so that they can be treated. And use condoms whenever you might be at risk for giving or getting an STI.

And if you do get an STI—whether from a world-famous songster or the CPA you met speed dating—please don’t consider yourself forever ruined. You and the billions of other people who have STIs worldwide are still OK.

 

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