An Interview With Sexual Health Activist Ella Dawson
Over the past two years, feminist social media manager and writer Ella Dawson has received widespread recognition for her work crushing the stigma of STDs. She has been called the “internet's foremost herpes essayist,” and has even been recognized by Hillary Clinton. In honor of April being STD Awareness month, Dawson recently spoke to the FBomb about sex miseducation, the stigma against STDs, and her own experience with all of the above.
The FBomb: You’ve been proclaimed “the queen of herpes” by your followers and have even given a TED talk about the work that led to such recognition. Can you tell us about the experiences that led up to this talk?
Ella Dawson: I was diagnosed with herpes a few weeks before my twenty-first birthday, and it was one of the most devastating events of my life. It felt like my life was over because I'd been told that herpes was this horrible, life-long painful illness that only truly reprehensible people get. Spoiler alert: it's actually incredibly common, and two in three people in the world have the same strain of herpes that I do, HSV-1.
The disconnect between how common herpes is (not to mention how chill its symptoms are for most of us) and how severe the stereotypes of who gets herpes are were infuriating to me. It's also an incredibly dangerous stigma. Many of us have internalized this message about herpes and it can lead to severe depression, anxiety, self-harm, and other dangerous side effects to a diagnosis. Herpes itself is rarely a huge deal, but its stigma can be deadly.
What are some of the most popular myths you hear about STDs?
That people with STDs are slutty, dishonest people who cheat and bone everything that moves. In reality, you can get an STD the first time you have sex, you can get it during oral sex, you can get it from a family member (many STDs can also be transmitted through nonsexual contact). But even if you get an STD from a one-night stand, you don't "deserve" an STD and it's not some form of karmic punishment. Herpes is a skin condition and most of us pick it up anyway of the course of our lives. No one tells high school wrestlers who get herpes gladiatorum from wrestling mats that they deserved it—a skin condition is a skin condition.
Why do you think the stigma that surrounds people with STDs like herpes is frequently excluded from feminist discussions about sex and sexuality?
Convincing someone who doesn't have herpes that STI stigma is a vital issue is hard. It's relatively easy to explain why the stigma is out of proportion to someone; thankfully the statistics and facts are on our side. But the stigma of herpes means it's still considered a joke, too, and that can lead to it not being taken seriously. Folks don't recognize how STI stigma intersects with so many feminist issues: slut-shaming, lack of access to medical care and information, the demonization of sex outside of marriage, and so forth.
STIs are seen as a consequence even to feminists: Rising rates of STIs are used as evidence that Republican policies are failing, which is true. But where's the conversation about those of us who live with STIs and could use some help communicating that we're not lepers?
I think there's also a fear that fighting STI stigma makes feminism look ridiculous. I've seen my message contorted by conservative figures to be “Feminist fights for herpes to be celebrated”— which is total nonsense, but makes a great headline and feeds into the idea of feminism having jumped the shark. But y'all, it's not a joke. I know teenagers who have attempted to take their own lives after getting diagnosed with herpes. We need to talk about herpes as a feminist issue and as an issue of body positivity.
Speaking of teens, what are some important topics that most people won’t learn about in sex ed classes, even beyond comprehensive education about STDs?
Sex education in the United States is a travesty. Even if you are lucky enough to receive comprehensive sex education and learn real information about safe sex, as opposed to the abstinence-based education I received as a teenager, most sex ed classes focus on risk. But a risk-based approach to sex ed doesn't cover communication, pleasure, and everything that can help teens make good choices regarding their sexuality beyond whether or not to use condoms.
Most sex ed in the States totally ignores queer students as well: If you're a young lesbian, good luck learning how to have a safe, pleasurable sex life from a public school education here. Peggy Orenstein recently gave an amazing TED Talk about this!
I follow you on Twitter, so I’ve seen the harassment you face firsthand. Do you think you receive so much harassment because of the topics you choose to write about? How does it impact your writing process or style?
I receive a lot of hatred online, but it's not because I write about herpes. It's because I'm a feminist who writes about herpes. I initially got no backlash to my work when I was just some chick writing about her life with herpes, but as soon as I started to discuss slut-shaming, sex education, hookup culture, and pleasure, the conservatives and Internet sexists freaked out. I think it's important to point that out: Herpes is the tool they use to shame me, but they hate me because I'm an unapologetic feminist who they want to silence.
The rampant hatred and trolling has impacted me as a person more than I would like to admit because I don't want to validate their behavior, but facing that onslaught of abuse does take a toll. I'm aware of the danger of my words being taken out of context, and I'm much more careful with what I choose to make public. I'm still an oversharer, but I maintain boundaries on who I'm willing to write about (like my family, friends, and romantic partners).
I've also been on a bit of a hiatus [from writing] since the election. Seeing Trump win felt like a victory for everyone who has ever tormented me online (including quite literally people who helped get him elected, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Paul Joseph Watson). It's been difficult to have a voice in the wake of November and I'm waiting for that fog to lift. Writer's block is real, yo.
How do you think the new presidential administration will specifically impact women’s health and the treatment of STIs?
If Mike Pence and the rest of the Republicans continue their war on Planned Parenthood, folks will lose their best option for affordable and safe STI testing and treatment. The war on reproductive rights is a war on all facets of sexual health. It's also doubtful that Trump's administration will fight back against the spread of unscientific abstinence-only sex education. President Obama worked hard to cut funding for abstinence-only education, and it wouldn't surprise me to see it come right back.
Do you have any advice for teenage girls who have herpes?
This world will tell you that you are worthless; because you are a girl, because you are sexually active, because you have a virus, because you have a voice. Don’t listen to it. You are not disgusting or stupid or damaged. You are an incredible person defined by your hobbies and your passions and your curiosities about life, not one test among many during your annual checkup. Confide in people you can trust and find online communities if you need support and advice (Tumblr's herpes community was a huge comfort to me when I got diagnosed young). But I promise you, you're going to be fine. You are very loved.
For more info and resources, check out Ella's website here.
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