5 rules for better herpes journalism: or, I wrote about dating for Women’s Health!

Life goal completed: write about herpes for a major publication.
Life goal completed: write about herpes for a major publication.

I learned quickly after getting diagnosed with genital herpes that no one writes about having an STI. There are no memoirs about herpes. There are no academic studies about the literature of herpetic authors. There is a gigantic gaping hole on the Internet where herpes blogging should be, other than the herpes support community on Tumblr (which, let’s be honest, most people doesn’t know exists). No one is writing about the everyday, practical experience of having herpes. And there are definitely no articles about dating with herpes that don’t position the herpes+ as wounded, terrified, unlovable freaks.

According to the media, there is only one herpes story (and some people tell it better than others). You can find it on websites like Cosmo, Rookie, and The Hairpin. Occasionally there will be a good, meaty piece about how herpes testing is bullshit, but for the most part herpes journalism is a blandly inspirational, predictable place: I got diagnosed. It sucked. I learned to love again. Now everything’s great. No one uses their real name, and no one ties it to the rest of their career. These pieces exist in a vacuum, about as motivational as packing popcorn.

When Women’s Health Magazine reached out to me to write about what it’s like to date with herpes, I found myself at a loss. How do you neatly tie up two of the most chaotic years of your life? I had no idea what that story should look like. But I knew what I didn’t want it to look like.

1. I didn’t want to start at the beginning.

Almost every piece about herpes starts in a doctor’s office, with someone getting terrible news. The patient? Horrified, disgusted, afraid, and confused. The doctor? Sometimes supportive, sometimes a total dick. The patient emerges forever changed on Day One of the rest of their life. While not talking about my diagnosis—and how much it sucked—would have been dishonest and narratively foolish, I didn’t want my story to start there. The beginning of an article sets the tone for the rest of the piece, and I wanted to begin somewhere completely unexpected: a softball field, about to bone an attractive bro. I wanted to make it clear that trauma does not define my life, and that my relationship with my body and my virus is not a painful one. Besides, that day in the doctor’s office at Wesleyan wasn’t the start of my new life—I left the health center different, maybe, but still me. I was the same flesh and bone and brain, and I get to choose my narrative.

2. I didn’t want to write about how I got herpes.

It took me a long time to piece together who transmitted to me, and that story is messy and complex and frustrating. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. I have herpes, and that’s a fact. Everyone gets herpes at different times in their lives, some from partners, some from family members (herpes does not have to be sexually transmitted), some during a sexual assault, and some people have no idea where they got it at all. But at the end of the day, no one “deserves” to get an STI, and it shouldn’t be understood as a consequence of choices made. A virgin can get herpes from their serious boyfriend. A sexually empowered boss can get it from a stranger at a club. Herpes is literally a lottery, and one that is rigged against us. And besides, shaming people for having unprotected sex is bullshit. Controversial opinion, but not everyone needs to have safe sex! We should have the sex that we want to have, as long as it’s consensual and informed. My ex-boyfriend accepted the possibility that he might get herpes from me. That’s right, some people choose to accept a life with herpes. Because they realize it isn’t a huge fucking deal.

3. I didn’t want to write a love story.

This shit drives me crazy. Accepting that you have herpes shouldn’t be the result of finding that one person who loves you anyway. Having a supportive, wonderful partner can work wonders for your self-esteem and sexual confidence, I’m not going to undermine or deny that. But to frame that as the only way to make peace with having an STI is limiting, unhealthy, and not to mention heteronormative as fuck. It also privileges relationships over casual sex, feeding into the myth that people with STIs can’t have non-monogamous relationships. Could I have told a love story? Sure. My original draft followed the “and then I met this amazing guy!” arc 100%. But where’s the empowerment in that? Where’s the self-love in that? In the end I chose to frame my article with a man, yes, but with some respectful, awesome casual sex. I wanted to make it clear that herpes doesn’t limit your sexuality or the type of sex you can have. And although there are several awesome, sexy people in my life right now, I am single and I like it that way.

4. I didn’t want to tell a story that didn’t belong to me.

An article about dating with herpes by definition includes other people, and it was important to me to have the consent of the men I discuss in the article. I reached out to an ex who featured prominently in my first draft to ask if he was okay with me writing about how we met. While he didn’t want to limit my ability to tell my story, I could tell he was uncomfortable. The boundaries of my loved ones matter more than any publication ever could, so I reworked the piece, and in the end it wound up being stronger for it. I was able to submit a draft I felt proud of, without worrying about the people I might hurt. Meanwhile, “Andy” read my final draft before I sent in to my editor, consented to everything included, and even chose his fake name. Andy is a baller.

5. I didn’t want to devalue anyone’s comfort level—including my own.

Writing personal narratives, particularly about stigmatized topics, is SO HARD. Even if it isn’t painful and scary—which this piece wasn’t compared to posts I’ve written before for my blog—it’s still exhausting. It took me a full week to write and revise this piece, and submitting it felt like cutting out a chunk of my gut and attaching it to an email. Andy and I both nursed vulnerability hangovers, checking in with each other about our confidence level and doubts leading up to the piece going live. When it did hit the net, I canceled the plans I had, feeling too many feelings and not up to being around other people. There is an incredible amount of invisible, emotional labor that goes into projects like this one, and self-care is crucial to keep moving. I want to change the world, but I’m always going to put myself first.

Click here to read my final essay, Why I love telling people I have herpes.

Did you like this blog post? Recommend it on Medium!

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

16 thoughts on “5 rules for better herpes journalism: or, I wrote about dating for Women’s Health!

  1. Thanks you. I appreciate your sharing. I met many visitors with herpes who complain what happened in their life since I am a site admin for herpes.

  2. Elle, there is a great online resource for people with herpes that contains thousands of posts about how to deal with this virus and how to date with it. herpes-coldsores dot com has been around since 2000 and is a forum for people to discuss this virus on many levels. There is one great section titled “The Secret to Our Success” which is full of great stories from people who thought that no one would want them but ended up finding someone who did not care what they have.

    It has dozens of articles on how to deal with the virus medically and there are members who keep the “Cure & Research” section updated frequently with the latest news on this subject.

    It has an awesome chat room where you can chat, real-time, with others who have it, some of whom go there just to lend support to others who are newlie diagnosed.

    Someone posted a link to your blog today and this is how I found this website. Personally I have had genital herpes longer than you have been alive and have lived a great life. I have given the ‘talk’ about a dozen times and have NEVER been rejected. I have chatted with thousands of Herpsters on that website over the years and many of them have told me that getting genital herpes changed their lives for the better.

  3. Ok, firstly the comments below are just lovely, and proof, if any was needed that what you’re doing is valuable and appreciated. I wanted you to know that it resonates with me on a different level too, though – the line ‘And there are definitely no articles about dating with herpes that don’t position the herpes+ as wounded, terrified, unlovable freaks,’ reminded me of the way I feel disability and dating is widely painted and at thirty I’m not over that, which is why it’s so much the focus of my blog. And, well, I’m just super impressed with your honesty and resilience, really x

  4. I have lived with Herpes since I was 23. I am now 58. My ex-husband contracted Herpes when I was pregnant. I can remember the shame I felt telling my Dr. that my husband had Herpes and I did not know if I had it. I felt mortified, embarrassed and afraid. The Dr. did not judge me, I could see though the disgust in his eyes he had for my ex husband .I had to be checked before my daughter was born to make sure I did not have an outbreak. If I did I would have to have a C-section. It took a few years for symptoms to start affecting me. Always thought what I was feeling was the flu. Eventually I went and was tested. For years I felt horrible. All around me people would make snide remarks about Herpes and I would feel shamed again. No one knew what I was dealing with. I remember reading a write up in Rolling Stone back in the 1970’s about Herpes and that article scared the hell out of me. The article mentioned the possibility that I could come down with cervical cancer because of this virus. Took me many years to get beyond my shame and accept. I remember my daughter calling me, crying, she in her 30’s had found out she had Herpes. I felt my pain all over again and how I wish she did not have to go through what I did. I commend and admire you for being public and talking about Herpes. Next time someone makes a snide remark about Herpes I will summon the courage to let them know I have Herpes. Be brave and speak the truth.

    1. Holy s*#t Pamela, if I didn’t know better I would say you were my mom writing under a pseudonym. This is our exact story, too. My jackass (though I do love him dearly) of a father gave my mother herpes (he said an escort he hired while away on business gave him a bj and that she had had a cold sore, that there was no sex. Uh huh, yeah, right) and I had no idea til 6 years ago when I revealed to her that I had just contracted it at the age of 32. My parents divorced when I was 6 and looking back now on my mom’s (very) healthy dating life, she said only one person opted not to continue their relationship after she told him, gives me hope that I can and will lead a normal (whatever that is) and happy life and that this virus does not define me. The other consolation I have from learning of my mom’s story is that my dad most likely, in all probability, gave herpes to the woman he left my mother for (and cheated on her with), my mom’s (now former) best friend 😊. All the best to you and your daughter. Thank you very much for sharing!

  5. Ella, I am in tears after reading your recently recognized blog posts. You are so incredibly brave and inspirational! We all need to start talking realistically about herpes and breaking the negative social stigmas associated with it, but that’s easier said than done. Thank you for having the courage to lead the way.

  6. You are AWESOME, woman! I have been living with this virus for nearly 20 years now, a 30th birthday gift from a (now former, natch) husband who enjoyed getting oral sex from hookers. At first I was devastated. A couple of decades has given me a LOT of perspective. I have a completely normal life, a healthy daughter, a loving husband, and a minor skin infection that irritates me from time to time. I am not ashamed of it any more. HSV is just a part of who I am. It’s not a curse, it’s not the worst thing that could happen. Keep educating people, you are doing a WONDERFUL job!

  7. Ella,
    What you are doing is truly amazing and brave! I wish I had the same courage to put myself out there like you have!
    i have never had a coldsore in my life and if I did it wouldn’t make anyone think less of me. I wish this was the same with H! Especially when location is the major defining factor when it comes to the stigma!
    I wish you all the best with everything


  8. Thank you so much for doing what you’re doing Ella! You are very brave and inspiring! I want to do this too, tell the world I have genital herpes too!! I want people to know it’s not a big deal! I got genital herpes through having protected sex! It left me devastated! It still does some days. It makes me feel dirty, ashamed, embarrassed, depressed, angry and much more! Not to mentione the pain and uncomfortableness that comes with an outbreak! There is so much stigma around general herpes, that you must be a slut, or disgusting or just a bad person! Not one single person who has gotten genital herpes has EVER asked for it! Who on earth would? I hope that more people can talk openly and factually about this from now on. And for people to realise that anyone who has genital herpes is still just a normal person, who can have a normal sex life! Please everyone out there, do not judge someone because of this! Open your mind up and learn the facts please! And share your knowledge with others around you!

  9. Ella,

    I happened upon your blog and essay because… dun dun dun… I was just diagnosed with HSV1 and HSV2.

    First, I felt – awful. I went an entire year, no symptoms. That is until my virgin boyfriend contracted herpes from me. I knew exactly when and where I contracted it. I just never had a thought about it. I tested regularly, I was safe, I was responsible. Surely, I was in the clear. WRONG.

    After delving into hours and hours of reading and research, I’m a little pissed about the misnomer of herpes. I have plenty of friends and family with genital herpes. They’ve all told me the story of their primary outbreak. Horrific. But no one talks about being asymptomatic.

    The CDC and health professionals don’t test for HSV regularly unless someone presents symptoms. So the world has healthy people, symptomless, spreading an infection even with safe sex.

    I’m thankful for your writing and I hope, at some point, when I’ve digested this new life… I can join your crusade in putting a very real and sh** disease to a real and normal life.


  10. THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH FOR DOING THIS you have NO idea how much i needed this. you are seriously an angel from heaven. i have been having THE HARDEST TIME accepting this and moving on with my life. but because you are so outspoken and are such a great example of the fact that this condition doesn’t dull your life and you can still live it to the fullest and falll in love and have sex, your life gives mine hope. it really is all about the terrible stigma and i stand above that, i know it is completely ridiculous but there are days when it is SO. hard and to fight this on your own is even harder. but seeing you and looking up you and how you handled it, gives me such relief to know i can be just as happy as someone without this. again THANK YOU. i hope this condition’s stigma changes in near years and people will be more accepting of those who have this.

  11. I’m so glad I found your blog. I have been living with hsv2 since 2009. I have always wanted to find a way to educate about it, but was too scared to disclose about my own experience. Although I’m still not sure I can, this had definitely made me feel more confident that someday I will. I absolutely love your approach to addressing the topic. Even if it doesn’t always lead to a live relationship, you can know you are teaching and enlightening people to the fact that hsv is common and should not be stigmatized the way it is. I do have to say also, the people I have told (mostly not potential romantic partners, but family and friends) about my having it have been inquisitive and interested in learning and understanding more about it. Which did make me feel better about it.

  12. Hey Ella! Loved the article and the sass. I feel like you and I are peas in a pod for your story relates so much to me and my diagnosis. I’m recently single and the idea of casually dating again freaks me out. So thanks because hearing stories about strong amazing women being strong amazing women about their herpes and their active and scandalous sex life is beyond comforting. Keep it up.

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