“Telling someone that you have an STI should not be brave or shocking. It should be normal, and kind of boring.”
That’s a line straight from Ella Dawson’s TEDx talk. A talk that takes you through her personal experience with herpes and what she’s seen of society since she’s been diagnosed.
Dawson goes on to breakdown herpes social stigma into three parts: lack of sex education, pop culture, and the current US healthcare system. In case you haven’t noticed, sex education in this country is, as Dawson calls it, abysmal. Dawson’s sex education was an abstinence only curriculum in which she was shown graphic pictures of what untreated STIs can do to a body. Dawson points out that even those of us who were lucky enough to receive comprehensive sex education are not taught what to do after a diagnosis.
The second source of stigma is, unsurprisingly, pop culture. Dawson points out there are almost no characters with STIs in television or film, and if herpes is brought up, it’s almost always the butt of a joke. If it’s not a joke, it’s a terrible tragedy and a lesson in promiscuity. Nobody ever talks about the very real statistic that two out of three people have HSV-1 and most of those people are living healthy normal lives.
The third source of stigma comes from your doctor. When you go in for an STI check you aren’t getting tested for herpes unless you specifically ask, and it usually costs extra. Even if you do ask, many doctors are discouraging of the test unless you are actively showing symptoms. And thus the stigma continues.
“A STI, especially herpes, is not a reflection of your character or a consequence of a bad decision. It is an inevitability of being a human being on this planet who comes into skin contact with other human beings. Period, end of discussion.”
After Dawson wrote an essay titled, “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes,” she accidentally became Internet famous for having genital herpes. Her article started popping up everywhere and soon the whole world was aware of what was going on between her legs. And what did she learn? I’ll let her speak for herself:
“There are a lot scarier things to tell another person in this world than ‘I have an STI.’ Things like: ‘I deserve a raise.’ Or, ‘I’m sorry that I hurt you.’ Or, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’ I have learned that there are far more important things to say to the world, and to yourself, than ‘I have an STI.’ Things like: ‘I have worth, I am worthy. I will not apologize for who I am. And I still deserve everything in this life that I need, and maybe, if I am lucky, a few things that I just want.’”
Thank you, Ella, for all that you do. This world needs more people like you.
You can find a complete transcript of Dawson’s talk on her blog.
Picture courtesy of Kim Hoyos.