“Raise your hand if you have herpes,” Ella Dawson says to an auditorium of college students as she stands before them on the TEDx stage. No hands are raised — even though, she notes and goes on to explain, most people already have herpes or will encounter it at some point.
Ella was diagnosed with genital herpes her junior year of college and she’s no longer ashamed to say it. In fact, she now celebrates the anniversary of the day she was diagnosed.
But it took her some time to get to this point, because there’s so much stigma surrounding herpes.
We’re commonly taught to believe that people who have herpes and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are promiscuous, irresponsible, or unfaithful — which just isn’t true. Ella explains why so many of us believe these harmful myths about herpes. In short? It’s because these misconceptions are all around us:
As Ella points out, most characters in the media who have STIs have easily curable ones — and herpes is always treated as an insult or a punchline. This has real consequences on people living with herpes.
According to the World Health Organization,
And yet many doctors don’t test for herpes when patients aren’t reporting any symptoms.
“Herpes tests are also somewhat unreliable and can be expensive”, Ella says — and even with health insurance, people who request testing for STIs may not be tested for herpes.
Many people in the United States don’t receive comprehensive sex education and are told, like Ella was, that abstinence is the best preventative measure. However, while comprehensive sex education often stresses that sexually active people should continually get tested for STIs — they don’t tell people what to do if they test positive.
That’s why Ella felt so lost when she first was diagnosed.
She wanted people she could talk to, ask for advice, and she didn’t know where to turn. So she started talking about her experiences as someone with herpes — she blogged about it, she published articles on it, she told anyone who would listen.
Most of these conversations went really well. People either didn’t know much about herpes and had the chance to learn, or they had herpes too, and this was the first time they felt they could really talk about it with someone who understood.
Ella has been told many times that she’s brave and inspiring for being so open about her herpes status, especially after an article she wrote went viral in 2015. And since then, including this 2016 TEDx Talk, Ella continues to go viral for talking about herpes, as well as stigmas around sexual health.
She keeps talking about it — and celebrating the anniversary — because she wants to break down herpes stigma through these one-on-one and public conversations, until we live in a world where everyone can talk about having herpes without fear or shame.
Alaina Leary is an editor, social media manager, and writer from Boston, Massachusetts. She’s currently the assistant editor of Equally Wed Magazine and a social media editor for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.