To The Teenage Girls Who Have Herpes

I remember the first time I was ever called a whore. I had just turned fifteen and this boy, this arrogant little fucker, was angry because I had “broken up” with him after one movie date in order to ask out someone cuter. Our group of friends was walking to the gas station after school to buy gigantic fountain sodas, and he just said it. Whore. I don’t even remember why.

He said it with this sick smirk like he was joking but I knew he wasn’t joking. When you know something is so, so wrong but you can’t articulate it, it feels like you are being strangled. I must have told him to go fuck himself, but no last word could compete with the impact of his.

Eventually, a year or two later, I found the term “slut-shaming” in the pages of some funky feminist magazine, and I could breathe again.

I wouldn’t experience that strangled feeling for years, but it was even worse the second time because I was older and I was supposed to be stronger. I was about to turn twenty-one and the guy I was rapidly falling in love with called me a whore on the phone because I had just told him I had genital herpes. But the term “slut-shaming” didn’t fit because I didn’t think he was wrong this time. I was a whore—I had to be a whore, if this had happened to me. All that consensual casual sex I’d had with men who respected me, maybe I’d been wrong all along. Maybe I was a joke, a cautionary tale, an “empowered feminist” cliché.

“How can you defend your precious hookup culture now?” he texted me, this boy who I adored so much. I couldn’t defend it, and that hurt with a soul-flattening, isolating chill.

That hurt wouldn’t make sense to me until I found the term “STI stigma” on tumblr, and I could breathe again.

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.

This world will try to shut you up: because you are weak, because you are irresponsible, because you are damaged, because you are stupid. Don’t let it.

Here’s what you should do instead: arm yourself with knowledge. Read everything you can, from sex-positive tumblr blogs to feminist magazines to your own goddamn journal. Learn the words that the world doesn’t want you to recognize yourself in. Use those words to tell your own story, because your experience is valid and necessary for us all to hear. Shout your opinion in a Facebook status or whisper it to a trusted friend. Be safe, and go slow, and make decisions that are right for you, because this world doesn’t look kindly upon girls who speak out. But please, for me, don’t be quiet. Don’t listen to that loud terror in your throat that tells you to be quiet. Noise is how the world changes.

Everything I do is for you. This is all for you. This is for us.

P.S. You are stronger than I was at your age. I am so proud of you.

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

12 thoughts on “To The Teenage Girls Who Have Herpes

  1. I just found your TedTalk on a support group I found yesterday (also when I was diagnosed). When I read some of these comments I almost cried with relief. I contracted herpes from my current boyfriend who did not realize he could transmit Type 1 to the genitals. Your page has made me feel accepted and like I can get through this.

  2. Your blog and Ted Talk saved me in more ways than 1. I was drugged and raped in June and then in July I got tested positive for Herpes. No one knows this, including my parents. I am only 19, and I never thought this could happen to me because I was the one who never had sex and educated others about condoms and protection. This news not only shook me, but it killed me. Since that day, I have wanted to commit suicide and been as close as a knife to me heart, but I never did it. I needed something to push and help me through this pain. And you did it. You made me feel like I am not trash, I am not a whore, yet everyday the world tells me. Thank you for helping me and saving me and being there for me in ways that even my doctor nor my parents could be.

  3. I’m 14 years old. Yeah you heard me right. I’m a cheerleader and a freshman at my school. Pretty sad huh?? A little freshman cheerleader has genital herpes😭😭 I’m trying to be positive but my biggest concern is my boyfriend. No we haven’t been together for a very long time and that’s the worst part. I was just beginning to enjoy the highschool life style of partying and having a big popular boyfriend and hanging out with the cool upperclassmen. That whole life style just crumbled to the ground right. Before. My. Eyes. The worst part is I now am going to have to break up with my beautiful boyfriend that I’m currently falling so in love with because a stupid freshman had unprotected sex. I’m also pretty sure I got the virus from a boy that I was raped by. If anyone has any advice or would be willing to talk please reach out I’m struggling a lot my life is so hard right now and I don’t know how to react.

    1. Hey girl! I am 19, and drugged and raped, diagnosed with genital herpes. I know it is scary because you feel so alone because you are so young. I get that because I too am young. I just want you to know this does not change who you are at all. Herpes is no more than a skin irritation at most. And I know that isnt the worst part, but it will get easier in time. It has been more than 6 months and I hope you are feeling better. Feel free to email me if you need someone to talk to because it is scary, but it is not the end at all.

    2. Hey Emily! I was just diagnosed and I feel like my life is over now. I really don’t know what to do and I’m 21 so I can only imagine how you felt at such a young age. I know this was a few years ago but I’m just wondering how you’re doing now and how the whole process went with you telling your family. I’m so terrified to tell mine I feel like they’ll just disown me. I’m so scared right now I don’t know what to do.

  4. I remember in high school a very pretty girl had a big cold sore on her lip and everyone was talking about her behind her back. At the time, I was also getting cold sores but I tried to hide them from everyone (even though it didn’t help) and I didn’t say anything when they spoke about her. I wish I stuck up for her back then, because I could see on her face how embarrassed she was, but just tried her best to push through it. It took me a while to realize that others judgements are a reflection of THEIR character, not mine.

  5. I wish I had your writing three years ago. I was 19 and thought my life was over. There was no movement to break the stigma. People didn’t talk about STDs, I had terrible sex education. I’m just starting to figure out how to confront myself and my herpes. Therapy helps, but your writing does so much for me. I hope one day in this big city we meet so I can truly thank you for being strong, because I haven’t been, but I’m starting to figure out how to be. Never stop doing what you are doing.

  6. Thank you. I got herpes from my first real boyfriend and sexual partner who didn’t even know he had it. I’ve only had one big outbreak years ago. I was with that boyfriend for seven years and we broke up this summer. I’m terrified? I think, that I have to tell new potential partners that I have herpes. I’ve been on two dates with a new guy and I have no idea when to tell him. Should I just come out right away or until sex is on the table. I’m quite sure it won’t bother him much but I’m so embarrassed. And that makes me sad for myself. 🙂
    I will now go and read everything you have written because this is the first time I have felt that there is someone who understand. Thank you. 🙂

  7. Thank you so much! No girl should be slut shamed or put down for her sexual activity. You’re truly an inspiration. I had a girl I thought was my friend tell everyone about me for a stupid revenge thing because I liked her ex boyfriend and maybe that was wrong but I def didn’t deserve the shunning I received from many. It’s comforting to know others understand too. I’m not perfect and make mistakes but shouldn’t be outlasted because of it.

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