Everyone at Wesleyan Has Herpes

No seriously, herpes puns are the best.
No seriously, herpes puns are the best.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. I am sitting at a table outside of Usdan, Wesleyan’s student center, under a big black umbrella. The sun toasts my exposed shoulders. A student journalist with the school paper asks me questions about my recent, surreal herpes stardom, and strangers at nearby tables peer over at me as I answer because my voice carries. There’s a baseball game going on behind me and Wesleyan is winning, and a hundred students sit on Foss Hill beside the field paying absolutely no attention to the score. Our conversation takes twenty minutes and afterward I wonder if I said anything embarrassing, having forgotten I was being interviewed as opposed to chatting with a fellow classmate while waiting for a seminar to start.

So much of who I am is the result of Wesleyan.

The truth is, a feature in the Wesleyan Argus means more to me than any write-up by the Washington Post. Not because one of my best friends and this blog’s editor is the Argus’s editor-in-chief, and this was Gabe’s last issue. Not because I’m a narcissist, though that’s undeniable. And not even because it entertains me to think that the Wesleyan alumni organization probably has no idea what to do with me. It’s because Wesleyan is my blood and guts, my training ground, my chosen family. It’s where I got herpes, and it’s where I found the voice to make it mine. Herpes doesn’t define my Wesleyan experience; but Wesleyan sure as hell colors the work I’m doing.

I always feel a bit awkward when I come back to campus, which is admittedly quite often. This weekend marked my fourth visit since graduation, and it won’t be my last either, as Reunion and Commencement is at the end of this month. But Wesleyan always makes me feel welcome, and this time especially. My friends dropped what they were doing to see me, as they always do, but on Saturday random strangers approached me at parties to thank me for my writing. “I’m standing next to you because you’re famous,” a girl told me at Eclectic when I went out on the balcony for a breather between songs. “And you can tweet about that.” She winked at me while I stared at her in awe.

Wesleyan has been supportive of my activism since day one, when I gave my first presentation about STI stigma to a dazed looking Cultural Psychology class. That’s both because Wesleyan loves to talk about sex, and discrimination, and shame, and also because it doesn’t. It wasn’t until after I graduated that another student told me they had herpes, but when those messages started coming they didn’t stop. Every time I write about having herpes, more strangers reach out on Facebook from inside the Wesleyan network: freshmen, seniors, athletes, slam poets, Econ majors and even my old friends who weren’t ready to tell me they had herpes too, despite knowing I’d understand. Every college has a herpes problem but Wesleyan doesn’t need to—not because it can eradicate herpes, but because Wesleyan has the tools to have a real conversation about it.

Even the ACB (Wesleyan Anonymous Confessions Board) had only hilariously kind things to say about my herpes fame.
Even the ACB (Wesleyan Anonymous Confessions Board) had only hilariously kind things to say about my herpes fame.

For my last issue as Editor-in-Chief of Unlocked, Wes’s art and sexuality magazine, I wrote a farewell letter with an in-depth account of my experience living with herpes on campus. The letter never ran—I chickened out and pulled it at the last minute. Instead I subbed in a short piece reflecting on my goals as EIC, just three paragraphs and a thank you. I mustered the courage for three words about herpes, and not directly: “In my time as EIC I hooked up with a few too many members of a certain Jewish fraternity, used sex as validation, became inappropriately attached to several one-night-stands, and contracted an STI.”

I don’t regret pulling my original farewell letter, but I do wonder what I could have achieved if I’d gotten herpes a year earlier. I could have started a support group, written a Wespeak in the Argus, worked with WesWell and the Davison Health Center to change the language around STI testing campaigns. Wesleyan is perfectly poised to talk about culture, stigma, sexuality, injustice and agency, and dissecting how STI stigma proliferates would make a badass student-taught forum. Most of all, I could have connected other students living with herpes, instead of receiving their cries for help now that I am a hundred miles away.

I really hope you find each other. I wish there were more I could do.

On Saturday night I’m sitting between two of my best friends eating the most delicious goddamn grilled cheese I’ve had in almost a year—my first sandwich from the Whey Station food truck since I graduated last spring. The weather is unbelievably perfect, leather jacket and jeans weather, and music from Electic House wafts in waves down the block. Two girls drive by in a Corvette, blasting Taylor Swift and belting drunkenly along. I catch a few lyrics of “22” and abruptly remember my anniversary of getting diagnosed is exactly a week away, and my birthday (23) is the weekend after that.

One of my sandwich companions is the first sexual partner I had after getting diagnosed two years ago. In a quiet moment when we are left alone, he tells me how proud of me he is over the low hum of the food truck. Our conversation mirrors each one I’ve had since I arrived on campus that afternoon, but it means the most coming from him, this kid who took a chance on me and my Valtrex prescriptions, my neck still tasting like shame. I learned that anger could be productive better in his cinderblock dorm room than in any sociology class about social movements. In our first real conversation after meeting each other, he called me out on pretending to hate myself when I was clearly one of the most self-assured people he’d ever met. The man had a point. I’m still waiting for him to say, “I told you so.”

I came back to Wesleyan for my interview, and to soak up the gorgeous weather outside of the city. But mostly because when shit gets real, you go home.

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

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