A crazy thing happened last week: I became Internet famous.
Yeah, I know, that’s a gross thing to say about yourself. But it’s kind of the truth—within 48 hours I went from being a blogger in my relatively quiet corner of the Internet (other than that one time I infuriated the entire Outlander fandom by calling out domestic violence and my website hits went through the roof) to having to Google myself every 10 minutes to see where my name had popped up next. I seem beloved in Australia. My Twitter follower count finally passed 1,000. I made the front page of Digg.
Let me rewind. On Tuesday, April 14, my essay for Women’s Health Magazine about dating with herpes went online. The title, “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes,” is admittedly clicky, and I intended it to be. I work in social media, so I know what catches the eye. Within the next few hours I received a couple dozen messages on Facebook from herpes-positive strangers who wanted to say thank you and share their stories with me. Although honored by their response, I wasn’t surprised to be getting some Internet love: personal narratives about living with herpes are rare in mainstream publications (and even in fringe, independent ones), and it’s even less common for a piece to not be published anonymously. I was delighted but unsurprised to see people liked the article, and that other folks living with herpes found it meaningful.
What happened next was what surprised me. There was an interview with the Washington Post, which resulted in an article, which was then aggregated internationally. A post on Jezebel. An article on the Daily Mail. Shout-outs from Feministing, Dame, and Autostraddle. A follow-up piece in The Independent. Coverage in major media publications around the world. And, my personal favorite, a hilarious write-up from a right-wing website that called me a “liberal whack job.” Hey, if the shoe fits.
With each piece that went online, there were more messages of support and gratitude. More stories, some heart-warming, some steeped in pain and isolation. I had given thousands of strangers around the globe permission to be honest, to tell me something many of them hadn’t even told their families: I have herpes, and I am scared, and thank you for making this a little less scary. One of my favorite messages from a stranger on Facebook reads, “You are making so many people, including myself, feel human again. Thank you.” The response I have gotten is overwhelming, satisfying, reassuring, and deeply moving. I am floored and very touched by the kindness the Internet has shown me, and the international receptiveness to the conversation about STI stigma I nudged along. Clearly we’re ready to break the silence surrounding sexual health and finally talk about herpes, without judgment and without shame.
But watching my story, my face, and my “too ridiculous to make this shit up” headlines (“Why does this woman tell everyone she has genital herpes?”) proliferate across the media was… I have to be honest, terrifying. Agonizing, actually. With every aggregation of my story to a new site, it morphed a little more. The Daily Mail pulled photos of me off my Facebook page, cropping my dad out of a picture of us taken on his birthday. The Internet treated me with kid gloves and I haven’t faced any significant backlash, a fact I am so, so grateful for. But I was no longer in control of my narrative, something that means the world to me, and I hadn’t mentally prepared myself for that possibility. Maybe I should have, but who could predict one article turning into this?
On the Thursday I went viral (pun always intended), I found myself sitting on a curb in the Village, making an SOS call to a friend. I explained to him that I was scared, so scared, and I didn’t understand why. I was having trouble breathing because there was a golf ball sitting in my throat, and my racing heart roared louder than passing cabs. I had this terrible fear that the Internet was going to (finally) notice the fact that I write erotica, and that I went to the horniest school in the United States (sup, Wesleyan?), and that I regularly make jokes about having bros in different area codes on my Twitter. It was catastrophizing rooted in rational worry, and I was having a panic attack.
This is what I have wanted for so long, I said. It is just so… soon. I’m only 22 years old.
“Hey, it could be worse,” my friend said, his voice full of wry, familiar warmth even through the crackly connection. “You could have herpes. That would suck.” I laughed so hard I nearly cried, and then I did cry, simply overwhelmed.
The next day I met my new friend Xanax, and while my physical symptoms of anxiety softened I still worried something was about to go seriously wrong. After a solid week I finally figured out why: I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
I’m human, and that’s the point. I’m a fully-fledged, flawed, multi-faceted human who writes erotica and grew up on social media and calls her mom crying at least once a month. My skeletons aren’t in my closet; they’re littered across Tumblr as evidence that being a teenager in a conservative town sucked, and my heart has been broken and healed time and time again. I cannot promise you a perfect, shiny herpes heroine fresh from the box. But who needs that anyway? We need real people who battle with shame and mistakes to make us all feel less alone. We need real people to normalize and explore the experience of living, dating, fucking and falling in love with herpes. We need to not only put a face on herpes, but many faces, and honest ones at that.
So hi. Hello there. My name is Ella and I will keep telling my story, because apparently the media has decided my voice is a valid one, but I don’t want to be the only voice heard. There have been so many tireless activists fighting herpes stigma for much longer than I have, and I hope to spotlight and collaborate with them in the upcoming months. When I redesign my website this summer, I hope to have an awesome page of resources for topics I’m less well versed in (I’m the wrong person to ask about treating outbreaks, for example, because I get them so rarely). Feel free to leave recommendations and links in the comments below.
Thank you, all of you. Thank you to the herpsters, to the sex+ community, to my friends, and to the journalists willing to boost this issue. I read every message I get, and I’m so excited about what the future holds. But I’m human, and I can’t promise not to let you down. Thankfully I’m not in this alone.