“I Don’t Know Anyone Who’s An Asshole To People Who Have Herpes.” Really? You Sure?

A guy who did not have herpes (as far as he knew) said this to me yesterday:

“Personally, I don’t know anyone who is an asshole to people who have herpes.”

But scratch the surface, and what he was really saying was this:

“As someone who hasn’t been diagnosed, I haven’t noticed my friends being mean to anyone with herpes, so I assume they’re all good with it.”

Which is a pretty loaded, and stupid, conclusion. Because it takes a lot of things to go right before that statement can be true, most of which don’t actually happen much in real life, include:

1) That “everyone you know” includes only your close friends, and not, say, work-buddies or those dudes you hang out with at the club or your mailman.

2) That your close friends would necessarily tell you about that time they discovered their potential lover had herpes. Or reveal to you that they had herpes. Or that they casually bring up herpes enough without an inciting incident so that you can be 100% certain as to their reactions.

3) That your friends would accurately recount the way they reacted to someone with herpes (they say “I turned her down” when their actual reaction was backing away and muttering “Oh, Jeez, fuck, no, I can’t get near that”), and that they wouldn’t tailor their recounting to make themselves more sympathetic to you.

4) That even if the reaction was accurately recounted, you would actually recognize someone being an asshole to someone with herpes (“Of course you told her you couldn’t get near that shit, she was infectious. What’d she expect?”)

5) That in the absence of your diagnosed herpes, people would react pretty much the same to you as they would someone with herpes (“We’re all basically treated the same, amiright?”).

Those are all fucking dangerous assumptions. Remove any one of them, and it turns out you might be completely blinded to your friends’ assholery to people who are unlike you.

Which has been a shock for a lot of people who thought “Yeah, the people around me are totally cool with this,” and then they contracted a disease they may have had no choice in getting (if, say, a partner cheated on them), and suddenly they discover that whoah, they do know someone who’s an asshole to people with herpes, and it’s people they once trusted.

And here’s the takeaway:

This applies to way more than herpes. It applies to literally any group you’re not a part of.

If you’re cis, you don’t know whether your friends are mean to trans people until a) you’ve seen your friends interacting with a lot of trans folk, and b) you know enough trans folk personally to get an idea of what sorts of things tend to hurt them.

If you’re white, you may not know whether your friends are mean to PoC. If you’re straight, you may not know how your friends feel about gay people. If you’re a guy, you don’t necessarily know what your guy friends do to women.

There’s this consistent assumption that just because your friends are good to you they must be good to everyone, and, well, that’s an assumption that’s turned out to be spectacularly shitty almost all the damn time.

And you fight that in one of two ways:

First: You talk about other people’s experiences and where you stand upon those issues, even if nobody else is doing it. I don’t have herpes that I know of (because remember, the blood tests are hella unreliable and nobody can really say for sure that they don’t have it), but I write about herpes periodically to remind people, “Here’s how I feel about this.”

Maybe my friends feel differently. That’s fine. But it at least starts a conversation that potentially changes minds down the line – because many of the issues for minorities is that people in the majority don’t bother to think about them at all, leading to some pretty unthinkingly harmful reactions. (And I’m just as guilty of that as anyone else.)

And second, you don’t assume the way your friends react to you is the way they react to everyone else. You’re seeing a lot of that with Harvey Weinstein now (and, yes, Trump), where dudes are going, “I never saw him do that to me.” As if an intelligent sexual predator would react the same way to victims and colleagues alike!

Maybe your friends are assholes to people with herpes – or assholes to gays, or assholes to women, or assholes to trans and PoC and, well, everyone who’s not you. You don’t know unless you’re sufficiently educated in that culture to know what’s hurtful to them, and you don’t know unless you really look closely at what your friends are doing when you’re not the focus of their attention.

Which is a lot of work. I’m not asking you to be all Harriet the Spy on your friends. I am saying to pause for a moment before making some blanket statement like “Personally, I don’t know anyone who is an asshole to people who have herpes.”

Because you might well know someone.

You just don’t know you know.

Don’t assume.

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