Last month, multiple news outlets reported that there had been a rash of herpes outbreaks at Coachella, the annual music festival in the California desert. The source of the reports was an app called HerpAlert, which diagnoses and treats herpes. HerpAlert reported a significant uptick of herpes inquiries in the Coachella Valley during the two weekends of the festival, reporting that the number of inquiries it received jumped from 12 people to 250 within the first two days of the festival. As TMZ reported, “a whopping 1,105 cases have been reported in Indio, Palm Desert and Coachella — and also L.A., Orange and San Diego counties where most of the concertgoers live.”
Almost immediately, multiple news outlets breathlessly aggregated the TMZ story, with many re-sharing it clearly motivated by a sense of schadenfreude at those privileged, flower-headband-wearing kids Instagramming it up at the music festival. Yet a few holes in the narrative immediately popped up. For starters, the timeline doesn’t quite add up: as one doctor told Billboard, genital herpes symptoms, such as pain, burning, and small sores, may take anywhere between two to 12 days to appear, so few people would report symptoms within 24 hours of having sex with a fellow festival attendee in a Porta-Potty. “The likelihood that that many people all from the same festival would contract herpes, have a visual outbreak, and then request a service from a very niche and specific online site within that time period is just bonkers,” says Jenelle Marie Pierce, executive director of the STD Project, a resource for sexual health and prevention information that aims to eliminate STI stigma, and spokesperson for Positive Singles, a dating site for people with herpes. (Pierce has previously worked with HerpAlert and other members of the activist community on advertising and sponsorship deals.)
HerpAlert later clarified the data, saying the increased numbers were not just attributable to new diagnoses, but to a combination of website inquiries, prescription requests and diagnoses — meaning that many of the users had already contracted the virus prior to the festival, and were likely consulting with the app to receive medical advice or to gain access to prescription medication. While HerpAlert spokespeople refused to comment on the specifics of the company’s data, they did say that given how common HSV-1 and HSV-2 are in the general population, “it’s not hard to surmise that most of the individuals that request and take antiviral medications for HSV are people who have been diagnosed previous [sic]” — meaning that many of these requests were likely from people who had already contracted the virus. They also attributed the increase in requests for prescription medication to the physical stressors associated with music festivals, such as “lack of sleep, sun exposure, emotional stress, etc.,” which may trigger outbreaks in people who already have the virus.
Additionally, the HerpAlert data was not just limited to those who were in Coachella Valley at the time: it also included people in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties. HerpAlert told Rolling Stone that this data was included because many Coachella attendees come from these areas, writing “it is common knowledge that attendees of music festivals travel from many locations to participate in these gatherings.” But the fact that these are three densely populated areas could very well have accounted for the spike in user interest in the app.
Despite these glaring weaknesses in the story, some in the media have continued to report not only that Coachella is a veritable breeding ground for STIs, but that other music festivals are, too. Most recently, TMZ reported — via data from, you guessed it, HerpAlert — that there was a similar uptick in app inquiries during Stagecoach, the country music festival also located in Indio. According to HerpAlert, there were 114 cases of people seeking prescription treatment for herpes on the app in the area that weekend, as opposed to the 12 cases a day it normally sees in southern California. Although the local health department denied that there was a spike in herpes cases at either Stagecoach or Coachella, TMZ nonetheless ran its story with a stock photo of a man in a cowboy hat grimacing in pain while grabbing his crotch, a woman in Daisy Duke shorts and a gingham top lustily reclining on a haystack in the background, an image that really drove the point home — in this case, the point being, “Don’t have sex at a country music festival, unless you want some Luke Bryan-loving tramp to give you herpes.”
Part of the issue with the narrative of STIs running rampant at music festivals is that HerpAlert literally turns a profit off of diagnosing and treating STIs. (It costs $99 to receive a diagnosis from one of the app’s physicians and have them transmit prescription medication to a pharmacy.) HerpAlert allows people to privately fill out a questionnaire and submit photos to receive a diagnosis, thereby negating the need to consult with a physician IRL — a business model that is “predicated on STI stigma and shame,” says Ella Dawson, a sex writer whose 2016 TEDx talk on her own herpes diagnosis went viral. “It relies on our discomfort talking to our own doctors about our sexual health in order to survive as a company, so it’s in its best interest to create fear and embarrassment about herpes.”
This fear and embarrassment can, of course, be exacerbated by sensationalized news stories about herpes “outbreaks,” which Dawson says “[lean] into the shock value and knee-jerk revulsion many people feel about STIs in order to drive traffic.” “Sensational, mean-spirited coverage like the articles run by TMZ discourage people from getting medical care necessary to be healthy and protect their sexual partners from transmission,” Dawson says.
It’s also worth noting that HerpAlert — which says on its website that it takes a wide range of precautions to “ensure that patient and physician data is kept private and secure” — appears to have culled together and provided the music festival data to TMZ, which Pierce says should not inspire confidence in its user base. “A herpes diagnosis can be traumatic enough, but image being one of the folks who used the HerpAlert app to receive a diagnosis after attending Coachella, to then see the same company using their statistics to garner media attention,” says Pierce, adding that the company releasing such data has the effect of “sensationaliz[ing] information and prey[ing] on the fear and vulnerability of young adults through false media campaigns.” HerpAlert vehemently denied this to Rolling Stone, saying that TMZ approached the app to request the data, and that it was intended to increase public awareness: “We believe… public education is an imperative part of breaking the stigma associated with the herpes simplex virus and it’s the strong contention of many that bringing awareness to this, and any other medical condition, benign or otherwise, serves a great purpose.”
Even if it is true that people are contracting STIs at epidemic rates at music festivals — and again, there has been no reliable, publicly released data to support this — then it’s worth questioning why this is a topic deemed worthy of coverage, considering just how common STIs like herpes are to begin with. According to the World Health Organization, nearly 2 out of 3 people under the age of 50 have the more common form of herpes, herpes simplex 1 (a.k.a. oral herpes), while nearly 470 million people have HSV-2, or genital herpes; in the United States, nearly one out of six people has genital herpes, very often without knowing it and without having any symptoms. (It’s also worth noting that some cases of genital herpes can be caused by HSV-1 when it is transmitted from the mouth to the genitals.)
It’s also unclear why it would be newsworthy that a lot of people in a given area would use an app to request prescription medication to treat herpes. If anything, the idea that so many Coachella attendees are apparently so conscientious about their sexual health should be lauded, not derided in headlines. And this gets at the heart of why coverage of STI “epidemics” is often more dangerous than it is useful, says Dawson. “It’s useful to know what STIs are on the rise, especially if it is linked to changes in policy around sex education, for example. But often, stories about STI ‘spikes’ are written less for the public good and more for shock value, which I think is the case here,” she says, adding that little of the media coverage actually focused on encouraging safer sex practices at music festivals.
Coverage of so-called STI “epidemics,” whether at Coachella or elsewhere, “does not help or encourage people to be proactive, to care about their sexual health and the sexual health of their partners, and it stops people from approaching risk from a practical lens,” says Pierce. “There’s risk involved in all partnered sexual activities, but there are also rewards to consensual, healthy sexual activity. The goal should be to help people to make the informed decisions that are best for them, not to freak them out.”