On May 9, I will commemorate a very important anniversary. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with genital herpes.
When I tell people I honor my herpes anniversary, or “herpiversary” for short, I’m usually met with surprise and disgust. In a best-case scenario, my conversation partner looks at me like I’m a few characters short of a clever tweet — why on earth would I celebrate contracting an STI? In a worst-case scenario, they demand to know why I’m proud of ruining my body with such promiscuous, degenerate antics — a reaction that usually comes from conservatives on Twitter, enraged that I am making noise on the Internet at all.
I don’t celebrate the fact I have herpes. When I honor the day I was diagnosed with herpes, I celebrate the fact that I am still here today. Despite a world that wants to convince me my sexually transmitted infection makes me worthless, I am an ambitious, vocal, and happy badass, and I am alive and well. I’m not proud of having herpes, but I refuse to be ashamed of it. It's a distinction that seems to baffle critics.
May 9, 2013 was arguably the worst day of my life. I don't often admit this, because doing so runs the risk of reinforcing the worst myths people believe about herpes — that contracting an STI ruins your life, that it changes everything. But I don’t want to lie about it, either.
At around 7 that morning, I woke up with a dim awareness that something was wrong with my body. My hands groped under the sheets to feel my skin and discover an unfamiliar eruption of furious red bumps. I don’t remember much of that day now, the memory overcast by a white haze of painkillers, but these are the details I still have: the walls of my college campus's ob-gyn's office seeming to close in; calling my mother in the rain as I walked to Rite Aid to pick up Valtrex; my roommate and her friend staring at me wide-eyed as I joked about having new material as a sex writer.
Mostly I remember my partner — hardly the right word for the teenage boy I’d spent the last three weeks falling helplessly in puppy love with — begging me to tell him what was wrong. "I can’t just go about my day when the girl I care about is crying on the phone," he said, and for a fragile moment everything seemed like it might be OK. His tone changed as soon as I gasped the word "herpes," though. He cared about me a lot less after that.
That day marked a turning point in my life, and not because it taught me about dating Patrick Bateman wannabes or asking my doctor exactly what I was being tested for when I peed into a plastic cup. I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the last three years about the way our society sees sexually transmitted infections like herpes (spoiler alert: It’s not good). STIs carry a pervasive and largely invisible social stigma. It’s still acceptable to make jokes about herpes as something one gets from having sex with Chuck Bass, or picks up in Vegas during a wild bachelor party weekend. "I hope she gives you herpes," teenage girls scrawl in their notebooks about ex-boyfriends who have left them for someone who wears heavier lipstick.
People with herpes are dismissed as irresponsible, immoral, unfaithful, and damaged — and women with herpes have it even worse. Our sexuality is already policed by impossible double standards and considered threatening to society outside of the confines of marriage before adding an STI into the mix. Before I was diagnosed, I was considered a prude as a high school freshman who didn't sleep with her first boyfriend, then a slut as a college sophomore who made out with a friend’s crush at Psi U. Now, as a young professional with genital herpes, I am considered a diseased menace for using Tinder to date in Brooklyn.
My diagnosis added a new layer of meaning to these tropes: My body became dangerous and unruly. On May 9, 2013, I was told I deserved less than everyone else. At the time, I felt lucky to have a boyfriend who called me a whore, because at least he was still willing to touch me. Reaching the fall of 2013 was a daily challenge. I never once considered taking my life, but I woke up each morning and reminded myself of who I was: Ella Dawson, 21, a student of Wesleyan University, a daughter, a writer, and a fighter. Unlearning the lesson of STI stigma took months of intentional work, but eventually I left that unhealthy relationship and added "survivor" to the list. A few months later, I began to do STI stigma-reduction work and added "activist."
On my first herpiversary in May 2014, my roommates baked me a chocolate cake with an "H" written in red icing. I celebrated by having a ton of sex with my new, kind boyfriend and eating slices of the cake in bed, filling the sheets with soft, warm crumbs. My skin belonged to me again. I was rebuilding my confidence, my identity fragile but intact.
A few days before, I had given a presentation about STI stigma for my cultural psychology seminar. I asked my classmates to raise their hands if they had ever had an STI, and I alone reached my fingers to the ceiling. It was an exhilarating first step toward owning my STI status in public. After class, my professor told me that my presentation was the bravest thing he had ever seen. Although none of my fellow students publicly disclosed that day, many of them approached me in private over the next few years to confess that my presentation had changed their lives. It turns out I was far from the only herpes-positive person in that room — a perhaps unsurprising fact given that herpes is a common skin condition and 2 in 3 people in the world have HSV-1, the same strain of herpes that I do.
My second anniversary in 2015 was surreal. An essay I’d written three weeks before about dating with herpes had gone viral, and I was a newly minted Internet celebrity. Suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore: The global herpes community supported me as I figured out who I was and what our virus meant. But I felt overexposed and exhausted. I celebrated quietly over a burger and a beer with a coworker that day, but in another few months I would be the top trending story on BuzzFeed, an article about me read by half a million people. Internet harassment from the dark corners of Reddit soon became a daily reality — not because I had herpes, but because I was a woman with a voice. Their insults sound a lot like my ex-boyfriend did, but I know better than to believe them now.
Three years in, I understand why this day matters so much. When I was diagnosed with herpes, I didn’t stop being the girl I was the day before. I still love hate-watching The Bachelor and writing thinly veiled feminist erotica about the men I have crushes on. I drink too much Diet Coke and I fire off snarky tweets and I freak out when someone doesn’t answer my text message right away. It turns out joking that I’m “Internet famous for having herpes” is a great way to impress guys in bars while casually disclosing my STI status.
On May 9, 2013, I started to become the woman I am supposed to be. I am strong and powerful, with plenty to say and all of the words to say it right. I know what it’s like to be told that I should hate myself and decide, "You know what? No."
On May 9, I celebrate myself.
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