A few weeks ago I wrote a carefully crafted essay on my conflicted feelings about individuals who fail to disclose their herpes status and the criminalization of the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. These are painful topics, highly subjective and personal, and I delicately side-stepped any absolutes on what is and is not immoral. My experience is mine alone, and my feelings of rage and hurt toward my “giver” do not mean that everyone who transmits an STI has the same knowledge, responsibility, and moral ineptitude as he did. I am not interested in condemning or absolving anyone.
Judging by the email I woke up to this morning, I was being too subtle. But we’ll get to that soon.
Last night I stumbled across a disturbing but gripping article about Scott Breitenstein, lovingly dubbed “The Worst Man on the Internet” by Fusion for being the first asshole to profit off revenge porn. Over the course of the article, Breitstein realizes with almost childlike stupidity the extraordinary damage he has done to the lives of thousands of women—it’s almost as if he never considered that sharing naked photos of people without their consent could in fact be harmful to them. One wonders if he might perhaps struggle to see women as real people (spoiler alert: yes). After some reflection, he removed the revenge porn section from his heinous website ComplaintsBureau, which is exactly what it sounds like.
“Make no mistake: Breitenstein’s reformation has only been partial. ComplaintsBureau is still online, and he still makes money from ReportMyEx, STDRegistry, and other sites that traffic in unsubstantiated and defamatory complaints.”
I stopped. I went back and read the paragraph again. STDRegistry. STDRegistry. No. Absolutely not.
Then I experienced the most horrifying Google search of my life, even more alarming and traumatic than my first ever “herpes symptoms?” search at age 20. There are entire websites devoted to hosting accusations and rumors about who has STIs. They are covered in biohazard signs and language like, and I’m not making this up, “Report the truth before it’s too late!” There are photos and descriptions and categories based on location. An image says, “Click Here To Report STD Carrier”.
I pushed my laptop away from me, startled to find my hands shaking. My room got very hot. My vision was hazy, and I burrowed under the covers of my bed. What I experienced was part panic attack, part total loss of faith in humanity. I don’t know why I was surprised that such websites existed when I spend every day studying the myriad of ways in which women are harassed, terrorized and shamed on the Internet. But I just couldn’t believe it.
Eventually I searched myself (I’m not on the site), and my ex (he’s not on the site), and everyone I’ve dated recently because rumors always spread about their status (they’re not on the site). This was a relief but not altogether surprising—people who submit “reports” to STDRegistry and its ilk are not doing a service to the greater good, as the sites claim. They’re getting revenge for something.
One of the best ways to ruin someone’s life is to convince everyone they have an STI. It doesn’t matter that most STIs are harmless. It doesn’t matter that STIs are exceptionally common. It doesn’t matter that STIs are only stigmatized because our society has an out of control fear of sexuality paired with a lack of adequate education. STI stigma thrives on fear and hatred, and that fear and hatred reinforces STI stigma.
It should go without saying that these websites are unethical, cruel, dangerous and potentially illegal. The process to get a post removed is lengthy and convoluted, and by then the damage has been done. It requires you to contact the person who posted about you directly (also known as “hey go fuck yourself” to survivors of abuse). If you cannot “resolve the dispute,” you have to go through a third party arbitration service, which may or may not charge you, I was too upset to demo the process and find out.
Because the poster is the one who the law holds accountable for a false accusation, the site itself exists in a legal grey zone. This is all helpfully explained on the website’s removal policy page: “US Federal Lawmakers know that 3rd party posting websites like ours have no way of vetting the users, and verifying the experiences or accusations that poster’s publish on their sites. US Federal Law, CDA (Communications Decency Act) as it is written, simply says you must hold the poster’s accountable for the content they publish. If you wish to dispute a post, the law says you need to confront the person who made the post. We have nothing to do with it, and we stay out of your disputes.”
And why do they not want to remove posts? “Censorship is too common in many countries as it is. We will not promote censorship on the internet.”
In this fucked up, twisted alternate universe, the site operators think they’re the good guys. Public shaming is depicted as a heroic exercise in justice. They talk about getting one up on the “bad boys” and taking the control back from abusive people. There is no understanding of how this public shaming, unvetted and digital, could be used as a tool of abuse itself.
There is also no room for nuance or compassion. Here, people who transmit STIs are evil, deceitful demons who lie and leave a wake of destruction in their path. They deserve punishment, shaming and exile. No exceptions, no excuses. And the fucked up thing is not only that some of these people probably don’t even have STIs, it’s that in many cases they’ve done nothing wrong. Their status, real or no, is being outed just because. Because they pissed someone off. Because they weren’t interested in dating you. Because they… fill in the blank. A sample post names a woman’s full name, her age, her location, and says only that she frequently buys a product to treat pubic lice. Another says only, “Smelly fishy pussy is always a sure sign of an STD and [Full Name] pussy smells like dead fish.”
This website has made a profitable industry out of writing shitty things about your ex in a bathroom stall, only magnified to a global scale. If you need me to explain why this is appalling, get the fuck off my website.
Anyway. Last night I went to bed traumatized and heartbroken in a way I haven’t been in years. This morning I woke up to an email sent through my contact form. I am posting unedited sections of it because I cannot do this email justice with a summary:
“I was diagnosed recently with this HSV2 thing a few months back. It sucked…BIG time. The irony behind this is that I got it from an RN. A REGISTERED NURSE! She knowingly passed to me and I’m convinced of that simply because of the conversation we had the following week. When I told her I was not feeling well, burning sensation above the genital region, swollen gland, and eventually the rash….She was like, I’m so sorry. I was at the tail end of my period. Maybe you’re having a reaction to my period. No SHIT, I said! I’m so sorry…And it went on and on. So when I asked, ever so lightly, do you have anything that I need to know about, she immediately went into defense mode. I recall the comment when she said, if you have it, then I got it from you. Riiiiiiight! If there was a way that I could get a hold of her medical record, I would in a heartbeat and sue her for everything she has, trash her career and the list goes on and on. I’m quite sure her employer and the state for that matter would love to know that one of their registered medical professionals is knowingly passing around an STD.”
He went on to refer to his ex as a “piece of shit,” mentioned how many degrees he has because he’s a “pretty sharp guy,” suggested that we collaborate one day because he would “LOVE” to talk to me, and then closed with this:
“Thanks for all the important work that you are doing. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to tell my story, and I probably will at some point. People MUST be held accountable for their actions, particularly those who knowingly infect others. We need to expose these people for who they are. If you and I are now bound to full disclosure for the rest of our lives, then they should be as well. Anything less than that is reckless AND criminal. PERIOD!”
Where do I fucking start?
I need to get this out of my system first: This grown man sounds like a terrible person. Does it suck to get an STI? Yes, absolutely. It’s a hard diagnosis to get. Does it suck when you can’t confirm who gave it to you? I’ve been there, it totally does. Is anger a normal reaction? Sure! But is it ever acceptable to threaten to sue someone for a fucking skin condition, and then threaten to tell their employer? Is it ever okay to be a vigilante and intentionally ruin someone’s life?
NO, IT IS NOT FUCKING OKAY.
Here’s the thing: most people who transmit an STI have no clue they had it in the first place. They just don’t. I believe his ex-girlfriend, and frankly, judging by the animosity contained in this email, I bet he scared the shit out of her. I bet he went off on this woman. Even if she was lying to him about knowing her status, if she even had herpes, it is never acceptable to treat another human being like this. I should know, I’ve been on her side of that fight.
And guess what: most nurses don’t understand herpes! I’ve had a reputable gynecologist tell me to my face that I probably didn’t have herpes because he couldn’t read my blood test results properly. Every day I hear stories from folks who were misdiagnosed, or got false negatives, or were discouraged from getting tested at all because we’re considered better off not knowing if we have herpes. Medical professionals often don’t know jack shit, and even if his ex-girlfriend had herpes, chances are she had no idea.
I know there are people out there who think that justice would be suing their ex for transmitting to them, particularly if that ex knew their status and didn’t disclose. Certainly there are sociopaths out there who wouldn’t know how to do the right thing if it smacked them in their smug face. But I have a gigantic issue with a legal system that considers transmitting an STI “grievous bodily harm” and also recommends not testing for herpes regularly. I have a gigantic issue with men and women, but mostly men in my experience, who write me to thank me for my destigmatizing work and agree that herpes isn’t a big deal but still want to ruin the life of whomever gave them the STI. I have a gigantic issue with anyone who thinks public shaming is acceptable. His ex-girlfriend isn’t Bill Cosby or that asshole who shot Cecil the lion. She’s a normal woman whom he’s accusing of giving him a minor STI on a fucking hunch.
I very rarely write from anger when it comes to complex and fraught topics. Anger can be used to invalidate my argument, paint me as irrational and too easily swayed by my experiences. In this case I’m making an exception. The criminalization of STI transmission is a practice rooted in fear, stigma and violence. It does nothing to protect anyone. And publicly exposing someone’s STI status in retribution makes you the asshole, not them.
I stand by what I said in my first post on this topic: “I cannot tell you what to do, but you know what you should do better than I ever could.” I am not your moral compass. I do not write public health policy, and I am not a lawyer, and I am certainly not a fucking saint. But don’t ever come into my inbox like we’re friends and brag about what you want to do to get even with a woman who may or may not have transmitted herpes to you. I don’t like you, I don’t respect you, and I definitely don’t support you.
So now we’ve learned what kind of asshole uses websites like STDRegistry. Writing about STDRegistry and sites like it gives those websites traffic and exposes the victims on it to violence. This danger is not lost on me, and I have chosen not to link to it while remaining aware that this choice is only symbolic. But more people need to know these sites exist at all so that they are criminalized and removed. In an ideal world, having your STI be public knowledge would in no way impact your life or your reputation. But that is not the world we live in, and being open about your STI status should be a choice, not a punishment.
If anyone knows how to make STDRegistry a thing of the past, I’m listening.