Ella Dawson was devastated when she was diagnosed with genital herpes at her campus health center a few days before her 21st birthday.
Now, in a new episode of "What's Underneath," Ella removes layer after layer of clothing -- and shame -- as she opens up about how she transitioned from feeling terrified and overwhelmed in that moment to being a confident, outspoken advocate for de-stigmatizing herpes and STIs -- baring it all, both literally and metaphorically.
"My brain went into panic mode," Dawson recalls in the video. "I felt disgusted and revolted by my own sexuality. I was thrown into a real identity crisis, but my mom and dad smacked me out of it."
Ella's boyfriend at the time, however, was a different story. He became emotionally abusive, calling Dawson a "whore" one minute, then begging her to stay with him the next -- even though it eventually turned out that he was likely the source of her STI. Eventually, Dawson left him, and now she says she sees her herpes diagnosis as "the ultimate douche-bag detector."
"If somebody rejects you for this," she explains, "chances are it wouldn't work, and you're dodging a lot of unhappiness.
"I don't know how you could talk about STI stigma and herpes stigma without talking about slut-shaming," Dawson says, "because the first assumption people make when you say you have an STI is, 'Oh you must have done something to deserve it. You must have been sleeping around.'"
That's one of many myths and stereotypes Dawson aims to break down by being so honest about her STI. According to the CDC, genital herpes is actually very common in the U.S. -- one out of every six people ages 14 to 49 have it -- but because many people don't exhibit symptoms, they may not be aware that they do.
And as Dawson points out in the video, because herpes is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact -- and not through bodily fluids -- condoms can't offer 100 percent protection since they don't cover all areas where an outbreak can live. Couples need to practice safer sex if one person in the relationship is herpes-positive. So it's really important to get tested, know your status, and be honest with your sexual partners.
Dawson has also written openly about her experience with herpes both in a widely read story in Women's Health, and on her own blog, where she's now building a directory of other openly herpes-positive writers as part of an effort to "make STI stigma a thing of the past."
“The more I talked about herpes," she says in the video, "the more power I felt over it. I realized that herpes would only decide my fate if I let it."
To learn more about STDs, STIs and getting tested, head over to It's Your Sex Life