Ashley Curtis and Devon Noir
photo: Ashley Curtis/Devon Noir

"Ignorance is blisters," blares a billboard in Omaha, Nebraska.

"What's the warts that could happen?" asks another, the words spelled out in shriveled, blistered skin.

The rhetoric is familiar to anyone who's had a sex education class: Herpes, a disease that affects two-thirds of the adult population, is viewed as a terrifying, life-altering consequence of deviant sexual behavior.

But for the 50 million Americans living with it every day, it's actually not that big of a deal.

"Living with an STI is lounging with my beloved cat. It's 10 cups of coffee for breakfast during finals week," student Kayla Axelrod told Revelist.

Kayla Axelrod
photo: Kayla Axelrod

For Axelrod, a graduate social work student at Columbia University, herpes is just a small part of who she is. In fact, most of the changes she's seen have been positive: an increased awareness of her body, and more attention paid to her health.

"Living with an STI is empowerment and the opportunity to gain more knowledge about myself and my body than I've ever previously known," she said.

Being diagnosed with herpes actually improves some people's sex lives.

Devon Noir
photo: Devon Noir

"Herpes has made me more choosy and vocal in my sex life and my every-day life in who I interact with and who's worth my time," Devon Noir told Revelist. "So I'd say it's even improved my life."

Yes, people with herpes can — and should — still have sex, according to the Herpes Resource Center. They counsel those with the diagnosis to avoid having sex during outbreaks, use protection, and of course, talk to their partner before getting down and dirty.

And that big conversation? It's not as hard as most people think.

"Even when I encounter a potential sex partner who doesn't have an STI, a quick conversation about transmission statistics and prevention methods is the extent of it," Ella Dawson told Revelist.

Ella Dawson
photo: Ella Dawson

"I'm more likely to have my sexual desires stymied by flu season than by my STI," joked Dawson, who blogs frequently about living with STIs. "Get your flu shot!!"

All jokes aside, the herpes stigma can still sting.

Kate Franks
photo: Kate Franks

Student Kate Franks told Revelist that the worst part of her diagnosis is realizing how often her friends make fun of people with STIs.

"They don't realize that, yes, I am my individual self, but I also identify within this group that they cannot understand or empathize with. And when they insult one of us they're really insulting all of us," Frank said.

But the stigma spreads farther than just peer-to-peer. When Ella Dawson tried to start the "Shout Your Status" hashtag for people with herpes on Twitter earlier this year, commenters told her to kill herself. Detractors called Dawson and her participants "no better than plague rats."

Ashley Curtis, who writes frequently about her herpes diagnosis on Tumblr, receives much of the same.

Ashley Curtis
photo: Ashley Curtis

"I have been fortunate enough to have a strong support system of family, friends, and sex partners," she told Revelist. "That doesn't mean I haven't gotten my fair share of internet hate, but I just use those moments as opportunities to educate the misinformed."

And the fact is, most people are woefully misinformed when it comes to herpes.

Rafaella Gunz
photo: Rafaella Gunz

"When I was diagnosed with genital HSV-1 in July 2015, I thought it was the end of the world," journalist Rafaella Gunz (pictured here with her boyfriend of 11 months) told Revelist.

"At the time I was unaware that two-thirds of the world's population has HSV-1, and one in six Americans has HSV-2," she continued, referring to oral herpes and genital herpes, respectively.

Many people blame this confusion on a lack of testing. The Centers for Disease Control and Control Prevention do not recommend doctors regularly screen for herpes, because it is costly and not completely reliable. Because of this, many see their diagnosis as less common — and more concerning — than it actually is. 

Perhaps the biggest misconception about herpes, however, is that it is the fault of the person infected.

Lachrista Greco
photo: Lachrista Greco

Dawson’s followers know this well, after being called "sluts and whores" for months after participating in #ShoutYourStatus. But Lachrista Greco, founder of Guerrilla Feminism, knows first-hand why that's so wrong.

"I contracted genital herpes type one from an ex who cheated on me in 2014," she told Revelist.

Other women may not even know their partner has herpes, thanks to the CDC's recommendation not to screen regularly. Still others may contract herpes even when using protection, as condoms are not 100% effective in preventing its spread.

"Contracting herpes — or any STI — is not the end of the world," Greco told Revelist. "...This virus is a very small thing in my life."

Like Greco, most women said they eventually came to terms with their diagnosis.

Emily Depasse
photo: Emily Depasse

“Most of us have something that we are embarrassed of, or afraid to share — be it a birthmark above our belly button, an experience we encountered, or a secret love for a '90s pop band,” Emily Depasse explained to Revelist. “In 2016, I made peace with one of mine.”

Doctors diagnosed Depasse with herpes in 2015. She told Revelist she suffered a loss to her self esteem, and lapsed into a self-destructive period because of it. Now, however, she’s learned how to keep her head above water.

“I embrace my vulnerability, and because of that, I have evolved into my most confident self,” she said.

Whitney Carlson told Revelist her diagnosis made her stronger than ever before.

Whitney Carlson
photo: Whitney Carlson

“When I was diagnosed with herpes, I was confused ... I thought my life was over,” the social media consultant said. “I slowly realized that I was still the same person. I could still date. I could still be happy and achieve my dreams. Now, two years later, I'm a stronger and more secure person.”

So there you have it, Omaha: That is the "warts" that could happen.