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African American women and vulnerability: rethinking STD disclosure

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Research indicates that African American women have the highest rates of herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), compared to other ethnic groups, with a national prevalence rate of 48%. This means that about 1 in 2 African American women are living with HSV-2. Herpes simplex viruses are common skin infections. With HSV-2, symptoms typically manifest on or around the genital and anal region. With HSV-1, symptoms typically manifest on or around the mouth as “cold sores” or “fever blisters.”

Some individuals living with HSV-2 show no symptoms at all. For various reasons, some African American women may choose to refrain from disclosing their HSV-2 status. With multiple factors working against them in society, such as the stereotyping of African American women as promiscuous or sexually deviant, African American women may often feel pressured to present themselves in a socially desirable manner. In attempting to defy theses stereotypes, full disclosure may be withheld.

Despite everything they are faced with, historically African American women have proven to be one of the most resilient groups of people in society. Disclosing one’s STD status can seem like a very frightening experience. However, it doesn’t have to be. Part of addressing STD-related stigma is remembering that contracting an STD is not the end of the world or the end of life. It does not mean a person will never find love or will never be able to have a satisfying sex life. In fact, disclosing personal information such as one’s HSV-2 status to a partner before sexual engagement has the potential to enhance trust, honesty and selflessness in a relationship. These characteristics are all necessary components of a sustainable partnership. Women can view disclosure as an opportunity within vulnerability. Additionally, women can learn to view disclosure as an opportunity to “weed out” incompatible partners, as opposed to viewing disclosure as an absolute chance for rejection.

Tips for disclosing an STD status:
■ Disclose your status prior to sexual activity with a partner. Make sure you are engaging in sexual activity with a trusted partner.
■ When discussing one’s status with a partner, speak from a place of empowerment, as opposed to speaking from a place of defeat or shame. Remember, research indicates that the herpes virus is a common societal concern.
■ If you struggle with shame or guilt about living with an STD, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to help process these feelings.
■ Understand that disclosure is a reciprocal process. If you choose to disclose, be sure to also ask your partner about their sexual health history.
■ Anticipate possible reactions. Some people may be thankful that you were honest with them, others may choose not to proceed with the relationship. No matter the reaction, remember that disclosure is a great opportunity to gather information about a person’s thoughts and beliefs. Remember their response is not about you as a person.
■ Be proud of yourself. Disclosure conversations can be uncomfortable. Reward yourself for taking such a courageous step!
■ If you (or someone you know) is struggling with self-disclosure or other psychological effects of HSV-2, consider enlisting the help of a licensed mental health professional.

Ajasha M. Long is a doctoral candidate in the counseling psychology program at Ball State University and a member of the Indiana Association of Black Psychologists.

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