One in six people have genital herpes. Nearly 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur in the US every year. The stigma around STDs normally makes people think of cheaters, liars, teenagers who don’t know any better, and other various “dirty” things when they think of sexually transmitted diseases. But there’s a new name circulating in the news lately who’s trying to battle this stigma: Ella Dawson.
As she wrote for Women’s Magazine, she herself when first diagnosed thought,
This didn’t make sense, as I’d never had unprotected sex in my life. Plus, I wasn’t the sort of person STDs happened to. I was a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sexuality studies major, and everyone’s go-to friend when they had questions about losing their virginity.
But there is no specific type of person STDs happen to, and each of these people normally suffer in silence with the stigma that surrounds their sex life. Dawson however, refused to sit by quietly when herpes jokes were made, then made blog posts about how herpes was affecting her life, and has now been featured all over the media circuit, including the Huffington Post.
Since April is STD Awareness Month, I sat down with Dawson to discuss some questions I hadn’t seen discussed in her prolific bout of interviews this month.
You’re a sex-positive woman who majored in Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality studies. You knew there was stigma around STIs, but how has contracting and STI made you notice it more in everyday life?
Ella Dawson: I can honestly say I never noticed STI stigma before I got diagnosed. I understood there was stigma around HIV/AIDS, but I’d never given any serious thought to less dangerous STIs like herpes and HPV, or curable STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea. I was totally blind to it, which is how the stigma operates; we never notice it until it touches us directly.
When I got diagnosed, it was like someone had flicked a light switch. I became sensitive to every tactless joke about herpes in sitcoms I once loved, every time someone said a girl probably had herpes as a way to judge her character. Most people don’t mean anything negative by it; they don’t realize they’re perpetuating stereotypes and shame. They don’t associate herpes with something real people experience. It’s a concept, not a reality.
What has having herpes taught you about the shame women are taught/expected to feel about their bodies?
ED: Most women already have complicated relationships with their bodies. Layering a stigmatized sexually transmitted disease on top of that…it’s brutal. Suddenly your body, which is supposed to be sexually desirable and perfect, carries a virus that makes you a threat to other people. I’d always been quite at peace with my body before I got diagnosed, I never struggled with my self image or regulation. But when I got herpes, a fracture formed between my self and my body. It felt like it had betrayed me, like it was no longer mine. It took quite some time to heal that relationship and to stop feeling like a walking health risk. The stigma surrounding herpes tells us that the people who live with it are dirty and gross, but the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. It’s a skin condition that millions of people live with, and it’s easily managed. It has nothing to do with anyone’s character.
What do you think the most important part of self–care and women’s health is?
ED: I really, really wish it were easier for women to manage their sexual health. I mean better access to STI testing, better sex education when we’re young to make informed decisions about prevention and treatment, and more cultural acceptance of women talking about their sexual health with partners. It’s so important to know your STI status and make proactive choices about what you want and how to keep yourself safe. Young women should be empowered to do exactly that, not be told their sexuality and sexual health aren’t valid.
How have your perceptions of sex and sexual health changed?
ED: For me personally, sex has become much more an act of intimacy. Not because I can’t have casual sex now that I have an STI; plenty of people living with STIs lead normal sex lives and continue on as they did before. But I prefer forming meaningful connections with my partners, who trust me to keep them safe, and whom I trust to treat me as well as I deserve. I think that’s also the result of me getting older. I was only 20 when I was diagnosed, now I’m about to turn 23. What I want has changed.
And I was always an advocate for sexual health, generally speaking. But I never thought about the conversation about STIs beyond encouraging folks to get tested. It never occurred to me to discuss what might happen after you got your results back. Now I understand that half of the equation is equally important, if not more so!
What would you tell young women and their mothers in context of your STI?
ED: It is so important for young women to learn real information about sexual health. More parents should talk to their teenagers about condoms and dental dams, even provide them, so that their kids can make healthy choices rather than be afraid to broach the topic. Family should be a resource, not a place of judgment. I am so, so grateful that I received nothing but support from my parents when I got diagnosed. They’re my champions.