We should all be worried about how we’re discussing Usher and herpes

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For centuries, Black people have had our bodies exploited, demonized, and then commodified for pecuniary gain. Because of this I must be upfront in the beginning: jokes about Usher, sexually transmitted infections (STI’s), number of partners, and sexual intercourse are moments we should not take lightly and is not a laughing matter.

Living with herpes can lead to stigma, discrimination, and isolation – and it is perpetuated based on unfounded fear and lack of knowledge. In 2014, The Atlantic published “The Overblown Stigma of Genital Herpes” noting how herpes is a common disease and the most debilitating symptoms are shame and isolation. Unfortunately, three years later, this is still an accurate reflection.

In less than four months, R&B superstar Usher has been publicly accused of failing to disclose living with herpes before engaging in sexual contact with four individuals. He has since denied these accusations. The details of Usher’s ongoing scandal are increasingly bizarre, so it would be negligent to write about yet-confirmed details. But it would also be disingenuous to not describe the ways in which our discussion about STI’s surrounding this hullabaloo will create harm for everyone participating in these discussions – even online.  

Previously, I have written on how criminalizing sexual health is a racist, criminal justice nightmare – and that part is still true – but it is also becoming clearer that many of us do not understand sexual health practices or what can happen if we have sex. And because of that, we’ll never understand bodily pleasure and necessary access to information.

Hear me out: it is my duty to protect my sexual health and it is your duty to protect yours. Certainly there is some nuance to long-term, monogamous relationship,  but the truth is that we never know if someone is being forthcoming with all information. It is therefore incumbent upon us to protect ourselves in the best way our body needs and deserves.

There is also dangerous misinformation that STI’s are all the same or similar. However, there are differences of how they are transmitted, how long they can remain dormant, and what medicines to take if a positive result occurs. We should feel empowered to have honest conversations with our health providers about sexual health, pleasure, practices, and how we can be best served.

What’s more, over the past two weeks, there have been countless conversations on testing and disclosure; but a regular check-up isn’t necessarily a sign of testing for each STI – not even for you, dear reader.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one out of six people in the United States aged 14 to 49 have genital herpes caused by the HSV-2 infection (the herpes simplex virus often responsible for genital herpes). The overall genital herpes statistic is probably higher since many people are also contracting genital herpes through oral sex caused by HSV-1 (generally responsible for cold sores).

To be clear, this also means that for people having oral sex without condoms – which, realistically, is most of us – we are all at risk. The purpose of this information is not to scare folks engaging in sexual intercourse, but to provide relevant information and to contextualize Usher’s alleged situation.

It’s critical to realize that sex is inherently “risky” and that the notion of safe sex is not a reality. This is why it’s critical to stop shaming others’ sexual health practices. We never know what can be on the other side of a blood test.  

Make no mistake:  if sexually-active people have not been tested for HIV/STIs in 6-12 months, they should not joke about Usher’s supposed sexual proclivities. To be sure, even if people get tested monthly, they should not. Ordinarily private moments like this come to the spotlight and reinforce why HIV/STI incidence rates increase in Black communities: stigma, discrimination, cultural incompetency, and lack of knowledge.

This is why we, as a society, must focus on encouraging people to get tested in an informed way, and not on how quickly we can create a meme or status update just for likes and retweets about a celebrity’s possible STI acquisition.

Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He is a regular contributor with theGrio and The Root and has written for the Atlantic, Slate, Think Progress, OUT Magazine, Ebony.com, and Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.