Women’s Health has an essay today from Ella Dawson, a 22-year-old who wants you to know she has genital herpes. After her diagnosis in college, Dawson, whose day job is on TED’s social media team, has also made a second career writing frequently, openly and quite cheerily about the past two years of living, dating, and having sex while having herpes.
Dawson’s essay, which we saw via the Washington Post, begins with a scene of her about to have sex with someone new. As she explains on her blog, that’s by design, part of her desire to counter the image of people with genital herpes as modern-day lepers, untouchable, unfuckable and hopelessly broken:
I wanted to make it clear that trauma does not define my life, and that my relationship with my body and my virus is not a painful one. Besides, that day in the doctor’s office at Wesleyan wasn’t the start of my new life—I left the health center different, maybe, but still me. I was the same flesh and bone and brain, and I get to choose my narrative.
As we’ve noted before, a whole lot of people have herpes. The Centers for Disease Control say most people with the virus don’t know they’re infected, especially people with HSV-2, better known as genital herpes. The CDC estimates that between 87 and 90 percent of people with HSV-2 have never been diagnosed. An estimated one in six people between the ages of 14 and 49 in the U.S. have it.
With the exception of infants, for whom herpes can be quite deadly (women with active outbreaks often have C-sections to minimize the risk), the virus is manageable and for a lot of people not a particularly big deal. But that doesn’t mean anyone particularly wants to write about having it, especially under their own names. As Dawson notes on her blog, “[F]or the most part herpes journalism is a blandly inspirational, predictable place: I got diagnosed. It sucked. I learned to love again. Now everything’s great. No one uses their real name, and no one ties it to the rest of their career. These pieces exist in a vacuum, about as motivational as packing popcorn.”
Her solution, then, is to talk about it:
I don’t know what made me decide enough was enough. I didn’t feel like the woman that my friends knew me to be—a bold and outspoken campus badass—but I was sick of making myself small because I had herpes. Six months after my first outbreak, I started dropping the “herpes bomb” into conversations casually. My logic was that every time I told someone, “I have herpes,” the words would get easier to say. I started looking for opportunities to share this fact about myself, seizing the chances presented by time spent waiting in line to pee at frat parties and by lively class discussions about health care. Although surely some people made faces as soon as I walked away, I never once got a negative reaction to my bold over-sharing. Most listeners were surprised, curious, and oddly excited to hear someone’s experience with a disease about which they knew nothing.
Dawson says in her essay that she’s proud to be fighting such a pervasive cultural stigma. And while personal essays are great, it might be even better for everyone to have access to comprehensive sex education, the kind that teaches people early and often to A) Use protection and B) Don’t freak out when you inevitably contract herpes, HPV, or, as inevitably as death and taxes, both.
Every single stock image looks like this. Image via Shutterstock