The First Time I Had Sex After Getting Herpes

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The first time I had sex after getting diagnosed he was wearing that black blazer I loved over a white v-neck shirt. We tasted like beer and early summer sweat, finals over, medication finished. Sunlight spilled through my bedroom window and my back was against the plaster wall. I think my roommate was out; otherwise she was right on the other side listening to One Direction and worrying about me like the sister the universe knew I needed that year. Continue reading

What Herpes Activism Looks Like In Trump’s America


I still remember the day I wrote my first blog post about having genital herpes. It was January and it was cold and I was sitting in my childhood bed with my laptop, wondering if I was seriously going to do this. The essay poured out of me in a rush, the words ready to be written after months of holding on, collecting, coming together into something worth the risk. I expected to be afraid when I hit publish, but I was overwhelmed by relief. I cried a little bit. I was out.

That was nearly two years ago. Writing about herpes ceased to feel scary, or even risky, at some point in 2015. That first initial confession about my STI led to the discussion of other topics, buried deeper, even more shameful: my history of abuse, my mental illness, my sexuality. There are a few topics left that I haven’t gotten to yet. I know that my boredom when it comes to talking about herpes—and let’s call a spade a spade, it is boredom—is a rare accomplishment underlined by success and privilege. I’m over it, y’all. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m not surprised by it, and while I still get angry about stigma, I don’t have much left to say about stigma either. Stigma is bad. People and publications and pop culture that perpetuate it is bad. Herpes itself has become pretty whatever. Continue reading

I, Ella Dawson, Am a Slut with Herpes


Only sluts wear leather jackets. Photo Credit: Andrew Cambell Nelson

It started, as most things do, with a tweet. Way back in April 2016, I started a hashtag with some of my friends for STD Awareness Month. I’ve already written about how #ShoutYourStatus was co-opted by anti-feminist trolls and the group now known as the Alt-Right. But one of the tweets I published at the time was recently embedded in an article about me on InfoWars (headline: HILLARY CLINTON SENDS THANK YOU LETTER TO “SLUT” WHO IS PROUD OF HER SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASE). Here is the tweet in question:

I could write a blog post about why I called myself a slut in response to the wave of genuine tweets in the #ShoutYourStatus conversation about how you don’t have to be a slut to get herpes. I could write a post about the respectability politics I see all the time within the STI community about how some of us deserve more sympathy than others. I could write about how people with more than one STI are often shunned by other community members because they should have “learned their lesson” and “been more careful” despite the fact that some STIs cannot be prevented. I could write about how I was trying to use my position as a community leader to shut that shit down and redirect the conversation in a more productive, less shaming direction.

But that blog post wouldn’t be fun. Instead I’m going to talk about why I, Ella Dawson, am a slut. Continue reading

Why I Will Never Support Herpes Dating Sites


Photo by William Iven

Positive Singles. Meet People With Herpes. Truster. Hift. Hope. H Date. Hmate. Herwks. That’s right, friends. It’s time to talk about herpes dating websites and how much I hate them.

Herpes dating services have been around since the Internet was invented, thanks to a powerful social stigma that makes disclosing your STI status a frightening prospect for many of us. In a world where we are judged for having a sexually transmitted condition, telling a new partner about herpes means risking a rejection that plenty of herpes+ people would rather avoid. I get it. There is a market for these services, and I don’t want to dismiss the experiences of the people who use them. Please do not read this essay as judgmental. I don’t mean to knock the insecurities of people with herpes: I want to address the companies that profit off of them. Continue reading

Want To Support My Herpes Work and Mental Health? Tip Me!

IMG_8123In April 2015, I wrote an essay for Women’s Health called “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes.” I’ll never know how many pages view that article received… and still continues to rack up over a year later. I do know that afterward, stories were written about me on websites from The Washington Post to The Independent to the right wing aggregation mill MRCTV, all linking back to that essay. There were hundreds of emails and Facebook messages from strangers who read the essay and felt moved and inspired by my words. There were even invitations to go on daytime television shows to discuss the essay. Continue reading

Why I’m Taking a Summer Vacation From Activism

IMG_9796Banff is gorgeous. Canada’s oldest national park is overwhelmingly beautiful in a way that nowhere I have ever been can even begin to imitate. Oceans of evergreen trees spill across hills overshadowed by craggy, white mountains. The river running alongside the resort town is the purest and loudest blue. I spent eight days in the Canadian Rockies listening to brilliant speakers at TED Summit and what will stay with me longest is the view. This indoor city cat fell in love with hiking trails overlooking the rapids. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t notice that I had no cell phone reception. Continue reading

Watch My TEDx Talk: STIs aren’t a consequence. They’re inevitable. [With Transcript]

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

I’m going to start today by asking you guys to do me a small favor: I would love it if you could raise your hand if you have allergies. [Lots of hands go up] Okay, I can relate. I have a tiny nose so I’m always congested. Okay, thank you.

Second question: I would love it if you could raise your hand if you have herpes. [No hands go up] I see no hands and a lot more confused faces, and that’s what I was expecting. In the time that I have with you today, I want to talk about why it is that it is so socially unacceptable to talk about herpes, despite the fact that almost everyone in this room either has herpes or will encounter it at some point in the next few years. I’ll let that sink in for a sec. Continue reading

So You’ve Just Been Diagnosed With Herpes


Man, you’ve had a rough day. Getting diagnosed with herpes is a bit like someone shoved a broom handle through the spokes of your bike when you were cruising along smoothly—suddenly the world is upside-down and everything hurts and it feels like strangers are laughing at you even though the street is empty and there is no one there to see you licking your wounds on the pavement. But there’s a silver lining to getting diagnosed with herpes: most of us have fallen off our bikes too. You’re not alone in having an STI. Here’s what you should know, from someone who has been through everything that you’re going through. Continue reading

Why I Don’t Call Herpes a “Gift”


Here’s a fun question: how do we take back what has happened to us?

The answer for me has always been writing. Even if I can’t force difficult experiences to make sense, I can capture details in rainbow prism sentences. There are moments I’ve preserved until I have the maturity and perspective to understand why they matter: my ex’s hands gentle at my throat as he unclasps my favorite necklace, the loving breath of a man who doesn’t respect me. Words give me ownership of the complex and uncategorizable. Continue reading

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. Continue reading