How to Give a TEDx Talk When the Internet Wants You to Shut the Fuck Up

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CW: threats of violence, encouragement of suicide and self-harm, gendered slurs, sexualized harassment

On Saturday morning, I woke up at 7am. I took a shower, got dressed, did my makeup, chugged a Diet Coke, and picked up two of my best friends. We swung through the Middletown Dunkin Donuts for coffee and breakfast, and then we drove to Connecticut College to attend its TEDx event. I paced back and forth in the speaker green room as my friends fiddled around on the piano and cracked jokes to keep me calm. My pulse was slow and I found myself less nervous than I expected to be. The day had a beautiful inevitability to it. A year to the day I had gone viral for the first time, I was about to give a talk about herpes stigma, the talk I’d been waiting to give for what felt like forever. I was ready. I was excited. And I had nearly canceled three days before.

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I have written about the price I pay for being a woman with an opinion online. Facebook commenters make a hobby out of questioning my humanity, and strangers send me emails informing me they’d like to fuck the shit out of me. I’ve experienced mobilized harassment in flashes, little teasers of what would happen if I crossed the wrong people on Twitter. From the moment I decided to do herpes stigma reduction work, I knew the day would come when it would get bloody. I have waited all year for the hit pieces about my promiscuity, for the tweets telling me I deserved to get herpes, for the threats or the hacks or the leaked photos. Nothing happened when I made the Daily Mail last spring, and nothing happened when I made BuzzFeed last fall. I got nervous in March when a post I wrote about News Genius started to circulate and culminated in a ruthlessly snarky Gawker article (is there any other kind?). But you never receive the backlash you expect, and my good luck ran out when some friends and I started a hashtag in honor of STD Awareness Month.

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It’s embarrassing to admit that I didn’t see the backlash coming. For someone who has watched countless hashtags descend into ideological wars and trolling, I shouldn’t have been surprised to see the MRAs arrive in droves to mock #ShoutYourStatus. We had roughly 48 hours of genuine tweets, of community, of new connections and brave first steps from people who had been quiet about having herpes for years. Then the slurs arrived, and the screaming YouTube videos, and the creepy articles detailing the professions and academic histories of the women who had used the hashtag with us. The abuse we received for #ShoutYourStatus was intensely gendered, violent, sexual and dehumanizing. It escalated quickly to some of the most influential ringleaders of the worst communities on Twitter—you can guess who they were.

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The part of myself that had been preparing for this day for years suddenly vanished. I took all the necessary measures to protect myself, some of which I had never done before: I protected my Twitter account to prevent my tweets from being embedded in articles, I changed all my passwords, I asked a friend to moderate my Facebook page, and I unplugged. It felt like a tremendous professional and personal failure. While I went quiet online, women I had mentored were attacked and stalked. While I threw back Xanax, the conversation I’d started was filled with bile. While I hid at Wesleyan under the covers, all that hard work was the MRA joke of the month. My collaborators held strong and supported each other, and I told myself that I could afford to sit this one out. I didn’t need to be in the middle of everything. I wasn’t alone in the work anymore. The best contribution I could make was to nail my TEDx talk the following weekend on this very topic.

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It is hard to prepare for a TEDx talk when you don’t want anyone to look directly at you, when your brain is muddy with anxiety and fear and silence. It is hard to run lines and make jokes and practice your posture when every five minutes someone else calls you a degenerate slut on Twitter, on Facebook, via email, in the comments on your website. It is hard to pick out your outfit and perfect your makeup when you are afraid to even tweet. Instead I thought about how when you exhale in the winter, you can see your breath. I could see my breath that week. I was aware of every word that I said.

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I’m not interested in trotting out the many ways that social media platforms fail to protect their users, but here are a few. When I reported a commenter who called me a “disgusting cunt,” Facebook said he’d violated none of their community standards. A digital stalker who torments feminists online and has been banned from Twitter mocked me from his new account, and Twitter ignored my report that he had returned to their platform. I’m not interested in being the Cassandra of the war against digital terrorism: these networks know they have a problem and ignore the obvious solutions. This post isn’t about social media. It’s about that moment when the wave of harassment finally dies down and you aren’t sure if it’s really over or if it’s just the eye of the hurricane. It’s about worrying that if I tweeted about my TEDx talk, the event’s organizers would be harassed into removing me from the line-up. It’s about what happens when the Internet wants you to shut the fuck up.

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At a certain point last week I got tired of keeping my jokes about being sexually attracted to Jeff Goldblum to myself and I unlocked my tweets. I was still counting my characters, flinching at every notification, but there was a new hashtag about capitalism that everyone was fighting over instead and the worst seemed to have passed. More importantly, my talk was in three days and I knew if I didn’t take my voice back, I would have nothing to say on Saturday morning. The fight instinct overtook the flight instinct and I realized something beautiful: I would have 18 uninterrupted minutes to talk about the topic these fuckers wanted me to drop, and there was nothing they could do about it once I stepped on that stage. And if I didn’t, if I canceled and hid in Brooklyn, if I made that pathetic, cowardly phone call to the organizer who trusted me, I would never forgive myself.

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From the second my cowboy boots landed on that red rug, I felt safe again, finally. A theater full of people stared up at me, open and curious about what this tiny chick would teach them, and I told them everything: that herpes is so common, that stigma is so heavy, that survival is so important. I took my voice in my hands and I held it tight, all too aware of how much I need to fight for it. It’s a fight I’ve always fought and I always will fight because it matters so goddamn much.

I will feel fear again, I’m confident in that. I’m too much of a rebellious bitch to not keep infuriating all the right people. But they’ll never take words from me, or this community, or this project. I will scream every rallying cry necessary even if my anxiety demands that I count each letter. Here’s how you can help: by sharing, and retweeting, and commenting, and reporting. By being louder. By listening more. My voice is half the conversation. I need you on the other side.

My TEDx talk will be up on YouTube in a few months and you can bet your ass I’ll promote the hell out of it. For now, you can support this degenerate slut by sharing other work. I’m thrilled to be on The Establishment today, talking about herpes with Sarit Luban and Britni de la Cretaz (A Feminist Roundtable On Herpes And STIs). I also recommend reading essays by Lachrista Greco and Britni, two of the other hashtag founders, and Emily Depasse, who tweeted with us and paid for it dearly. Or you can join us and tweet and write and shout. Do it safely, and do it intentionally, but say what you need to say. Trust me when I tell you that saying nothing is a lot more dangerous.

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19 thoughts on “How to Give a TEDx Talk When the Internet Wants You to Shut the Fuck Up

  1. Pingback: 10 Essays I Wrote In 2016 That Taught Me Who I Am | My business is generally pleasurable.

  2. Pingback: I, Ella Dawson, Am a Slut with Herpes | My business is generally pleasurable.

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  4. Pingback: Why I’m Taking a Summer Vacation From Activism | My business is generally pleasurable.

  5. I got a routine STI screen recently and expressed concern about herpes (knowing how common it was). The doctor ordered the type-sensitive blood tests. I’m naturally a bit of a hypochondriac, so the first few days of waiting for the test to come back were torture… I couldn’t escape the fear of how a positive diagnosis could affect my mental state and social life. THEN I watched your talk and read (most of) your blog. NOW I kinda sorta don’t really care whether I have it. If I have herpes then I’ll refuse to be ashamed of it.

    If I don’t have it then LORD knows I eventually will… so I’ll still be doing my part to confront the stigma.

  6. Thank you for your work. The TED-X talk is awesome. I have had herpes for about 22 years. I haven’t had an outbreak now in a long time, but I used to get them a lot, especially when I was stressed or sick. I learned to have a conversation about it with a potential sexual partner, with good results. More people should watch this TED-X talk.
    P.S. I still don’t feel comfortable putting my last name on this comment. Is that bad of me?

  7. Ella, thank you for your bravery. I have had herpes for 20 years. Valentine’s Day is my Herpiversary. How’s that for irony? At the age of 26, I entered the third sexual relationship of my life, and I got it the first time. One does not need to be permiscuous to get herpes. Just have sex with an infected person at the wrong time. My partner was having an outbreak and failed to tell me. Anyway, I have been married for 15 years now (to a new, wonderful man) all the while having unprotected sex, and I never transmitted it to my husband. We had a very open conversation about it, and he wasn’t concerned at all. It’s all about knowing the signs of an impending outbreak and of course, Valtrex, which is a miracle drug. Outbreaks become less severe and less frequent as one ages, but when my immune system is down (like when I had the flu) out pops the blisters in all their fury. 😦

  8. Pingback: STI Awareness Month: Articles You Must Read - GF Team - Guerrilla Feminism

  9. You seriously made me tear up. I felt absolutely awful about my situation but your bravery makes me feel like a human again.. Thank you for that.. More people should be like you.. You weathered the storm and came out on top.. You’re awesome.

  10. Your courage and bravery is so inspiring. You truly helped me feel like I was not alone on this planet and that maybe I could find some peace in this world after my diagnosis. I myself have also been confronted by these assholes and it’s hard to not let what they say sting you. But you are taking the best approach. Let these people be ignorant, rude and cruel and you stand on your soap box and you tell the world what they need to hear. You were my warrior and you are my fighter. Don’t even give that up. Excellent post and I can’t wait to hear you talk!

  11. I love everything that you do, you saved my life when I was first diagnosed.
    I’m really sorry that some people had to be jerks; but thanks for standing up for people like me

  12. Thank you for everything you do. I wrote you a while ago and thanked you for making me feel human again after my herpes diagnosis. (You mentioned it in a blog post probably a year ago.) Since then, your posts and tweets really helped me gain confidence and courage again. I’ve had great sex and better partners than I ever did before herpes. I feel no more shame. It must be really hard to deal with all of the hurtful things people say online, but you really are making a difference. I am very grateful. I can’t wait to watch your talk!!

  13. Excellant article. I will definitely be watching the talk when it hits.
    The guys sending all that hatred towards you are exactly the sort of guys who won’t bother with protection because, “It’s her responsibility to be clean, right?”

  14. I will never understand how these keyboard warriors seem to miss the simple fact that anyone who has herpes or any STI, got it from someone else, generally because that someone didn’t know they had it (not always, but often). How does that make the receiver a bad person?

  15. At times we think humanity has progressed, and then we realise that many of us are still in that fetid, primeval swamp. Stay strong and brave, Ella. I will share this as widely as possible.

  16. You are an amazing woman. I am 68 y.o. When I remarried (now divorced) in the 90s, my now ex neglected to tell me he had been married to someone with herpes. Either he was a silent shedder and didn’t know or he had it and didn’t tell. In any case, he passed it on to me. I was devastated. Felt like a death sentence..anyway..I got through it and after the initial years of a few intense outbreaks ( and worse, emotional) I lived with it. When I got divorced 10 yrs ago it was awful having to bare my soul to potential lovers.(even though I hardly ever have any outbreaks)..many, especially my generation, were never confronted with STDs and often I told the right thing to the wrong person and was devastated often, feeling damaged once again. I have had one 2 1/2 yr relationship a few yrs ago with no stigma in the way. What a relief. I haven’t since and it is ever present, that if it presents itself, I have to go through the telling stage again. As I said, my generation is very ignorant about and STDs and think they are immune. I found your site last year and it has helped me so much and I applaud you from the bottom of my heart. I can’t wait to hear your TED talk.

  17. You are a bad-assed, intelligent woman. I am impressed. I am dating a bad-assed, intelligent woman who is hsv+.
    Odds would suggest that I am likely positive also. It’s hard to shield yourself from the fear and ignorance of others when you are such a social creature. I’m looking forward to seeing your TED-X talk.

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