A few weeks ago I crashed a party at a dive bar in Brooklyn. I’d just gotten back from a business trip and I hadn’t seen my friends in a while, so I promised myself I would have one drink and then go home and catch up on sleep. But Brooklyn had other plans for me: I met someone. Five weeks later, he let me interview him about what it’s like to fuck someone with herpes, how much texting is too much texting, and how he feels about me live-tweeting our relationship.
Our conversation has been edited for length.
ELLA: It’s very hard to do an interview when you’re sex drunk.
GUY FROM THE BAR: I know, my brain isn’t functioning at the moment. We should do like a pre-sex and a post-sex interview at some point.
ELLA: An entrance and exit interview?
ELLA: So let’s start at the beginning. How do you remember meeting me?
GFTB: I was going to a get-together for a friend, and truth be told, I was not feeling my best. I almost didn’t go. The bar was far too loud, it was not my type of scene, and I was probably going to leave early, and then you showed up. I remember being like, Oh this girl is super duper cute, but I’m not good at talking to girls in bars. I knew if I started talking to you, it would probably go poorly. But you seemed interested and I tried to play it cool. We got to talking and the conversation seemed natural and fun, and I was very impressed by how open you were about your life and about herpes in general. I’m a huge fan of social media, so the fact that you work in social media, I was like, Oh wow we have a lot to talk about. And then everyone started leaving and you were getting ready to go—
ELLA: Because you had started talking to your friends again and I was like, Oh shit, I lost him.
GFTB: I thought I had lost you! So I was like, Alright, I might as well give up.
ELLA: You asked if I was leaving and I was like, “Uhhh,” and I didn’t want to admit my friends had left and I was still there hoping to chat more with you.
GFTB: Right! You had your coat on and I thought, Oh well that’s the end.
ELLA: But you said you were getting another round and asked if I wanted another beer.
GFTB: And then you took your coat off and I was like, COOL, she’s interested. By the time everyone had left and it was just us on the other side of the bar, I was having fun talking to you. And then we left the bar, we were walking, and I kissed you and you told me I was using too much tongue.
ELLA (laughing): Yes. And then we took the subway home and went our separate ways.
I was excited to brag about having my first one night stand since getting herpes, but then we had sex again last night ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 1, 2016
ELLA: You touched on this a little, but telling you I had herpes wound up being kind of ridiculous. We were talking about what we did that first night and I said that I worked in social. But as much as what I do at TED is really interesting, it’s not what I consider the most important thing in my life. It’s not my blood in the way that my writing is. I mentioned that I freelanced, that I’d written for Women’s Health. I have a very deliberate “testing the waters” thing that I do with people, slowly explaining my work in pieces. And then I finally mentioned that I was a herpes writer and I kept watching your face for a reaction and you were like, “Oh that’s cool!” But then one of your friends said, “I know you, you’re Ella Dawson,” because she had read my blog, and that was probably the coolest I have ever felt in my life. That was the ultimate small Brooklyn world moment.
GFTB: Yeah, I had no idea that my friend knew who you were. I didn’t know of your work at the time. The Internet’s a very big place.
ELLA: What went through your mind when a girl you’d been flirting with at a bar was like, “Oh yeah, I write about herpes”?
GFTB: I don’t remember being flustered by it in any way, or having that big of a reaction internally. Someone close to me has herpes. The fact that so much of the world already has it and it’s so overly stigmatized… I was just like, well, it’s not a big deal. I was thinking, If I had sex with this person, I wouldn’t die. I would be fine. She’s obviously fine. It’s fine.
ELLA: It sounds like you thought about it, processed it, went ehh okay, and then kept flirting with me.
GFTB: Yup. It was totally fine.
ELLA: Just herpes.
GFTB: Just herpes.
ELLA: So I gave you my number and we made out on the L train. And then I very aggressively invited you over the next night using a Chandler Bing GIF from Friends, if I recall correctly.
GFTB: Yes! It was a lovely GIF.
ELLA: I’m still very proud of that and shocked that it worked.
GFTB: You were shocked that that worked? Really? It was so well done.
ELLA: I knew I had you in the bag but I was worried that you would be like, Oh this girl’s weird. I don’t know, it was a gamble! Did you at any point wonder on your way over if it was a good idea? Did you have any second thoughts or was it like, I’ve processed this once, I made my decision, I’m gonna go get some ass?
GFTB: To be fair, I was drunk at a karaoke bar, and when a girl sent me a flirty GIF at 1am, I was like, OH THIS IS GREAT. This girl that I kissed yesterday obviously wants to do something and she’s very cute, so this is going to be fun for the both of us. I was also impressed by your forwardness because the better sexual relationships that I’ve had have been with girls who are very forward upfront. Most relationships I’ve had that petered out quickly were with people who either played mind games or were reserved sexually. So I was impressed. I think the fact that I’m here tonight after five weeks speaks for itself.
ELLA: Yeah, we’ve been having a lot of sex, and the fact that we are both so communicative is a huge part of that. I’m glad to hear that the forwardness is good because everybody has that insecurity of Am I texting this person first too much, am I texting them too often? Especially since we’re just having fun and I worry about coming on too strong or freaking you out.
GFTB: There’s a difference between being too forward and texting too much, where someone is incessantly like, “How are you, what are you doing, what’s going on, blah blah.” But when we kissed that first night, nothing was pushed from either end, and then later the next night, that was the next time you texted me.
ELLA: I think I texted you at like 6pm to ask what you were up to, and you were at karaoke, and I asked if you’d be interested in meeting up later, and you were like, “Definitely.” And then I went about my night and you texted me later when you were free.
GFTB: You gotta live your own life. That’s the sexiest thing, when somebody lives their own life and has other stuff going on. I usually have a problem when someone is so dependent on somebody else’s attention to be happy. That’s the least sexy thing to me. When someone has all their own shit happening, that’s awesome.
ELLA: And I used to be like that, in college especially. I put too much stock in the sex I was having and the relationships I was in, and that other person was my sole source of happiness and confidence. I’m at the point now where I have my writing, I have TED, I have friends, I have another relationship. I’m not dependent on getting attention from one person anymore, and that took me a really long-ass time. But I appreciate the fact that with you, you are interested in my life and—
GFTB: You have an interesting life!
ELLA: It’s been very busy too.
GFTB: You have so much going on. I met you at a very weird time in your life.
ELLA: But yeah, we’re complimentary and it seems to be working.
Shoutout to sexual partners who respect and empathize with your trauma when it pops up unexpectedly 💜
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 18, 2016
ELLA: This is so unlike my other interviews because it seems like herpes is irrelevant to us and that’s really refreshing. It was a conversation, it happened, and now we’re having a lot of sex and use condoms and we’ve talked about getting tested soon, which I didn’t realize I could do at CityMD, so that rules. Do you have a testing regimen?
GFTB: I don’t have a regimen, but any time I have a new partner or unprotected sex, I get tested. I have to, because I would feel horrible if there was something in me for whatever reason and I transferred it to another person. That would crush me. So I have to be safe for other people.
ELLA: It’s important! I’ve met people who know the responsibility but they just get lazy, and there’s this weird assumption that if nothing has happened yet, then they’ll be fine. It’s a problem I’ve had with past relationships where I’ll be with someone and they know I’m herpes positive and they’re fine with it, but then we stop seeing each other and I know that they haven’t gotten tested since. I know that herpes tests are mad sketch and it’s not a satisfying answer if you test negative because you just don’t know how accurate the result is. But just because someone has been a good partner to me, does that mean that they’re being a good partner for other people? I’m also very demanding when it comes to sexual health and responsibility, and not everyone has that confidence or even knows what to ask for. It’s one thing to be responsible with someone who lets you know up front what they expect, but not everybody’s like that. Whenever I do meet someone who thinks consciously about it, I’m like, this person is a Good Person.
GFTB: Aww, get out of here.
ELLA: No, this is my apartment.
GFTB: Okay, well I will then leave.
ELLA (laughs): I wonder if it has to do with age too? I’ve typically dated people who are in college and you’ve been out a few more years than me. Are those things that you’ve learned in the past few years?
GFTB: Yeah. I’ve had a lot of partners and I’ve had pregnancy scares. I’ve never actually had an STD scare, but any scare that I’ve had has made me realize that I have to be so careful because I hate feeling like that. It’s the worst feeling when you think you got someone pregnant or you think you have a virus or anything that was so preventable. So I have since been regularly tested because I want to feel safe. My biggest fear is giving something to someone else and having to tell them that I did that because I was lazy or stupid. It’s self-preservation.
ELLA: But it’s empathetic self-preservation. You do not want to feel that way, but you would feel that way because you’re not a dick.
GFTB: Right. I don’t want to hurt another person.
ELLA: Something that I find interesting is choice. Deciding to sleep with someone who has an STI and taking a calculated risk is very different from discovering, Holy fuck I just got an STI and I don’t know how. I’ve talked to people who started relationships with partners who were STI+, and if they did receive the STI from that partner, they’ve already had it destigmatized, and it’s not a traumatic experience for them. It’s just a medical reality that they adjust to. There’s less blame and loathing because there was agency there, it was a person and a relationship and a decision made. That story is so poorly represented in the way that we talk about STIs…. The notion of anyone choosing to have sex with someone with an STI is unthinkable. It’s an insecurity I have. I know the risk of me transmitting is very low because I’m largely asymptomatic and I use protection and I take antivirals if I think I might have an outbreak, but it’s still something I think so much about. I’m lucky that I’ve never transmitted to my knowledge (and I think I would know, because my exes are the type who would immediately call me to talk about it). But I worry. I don’t want to do that to somebody even if they made that choice.
GFTB: But you take every step that you can to keep that from happening, and it’s very admirable. You could be super lazy and not care. You should disclose to people that you have something, but you don’t have to, and the fact that you do and you’re very open about it is great.
ELLA: I’ve heard that it makes me attractive.
GFTB: It does!
ELLA: It’s that radical honesty thing. It makes people feel very safe with me even though I’m an “unsafe person.”
ELLA: Critics like to talk about how no sex with me would be safe. That since it’s impossible to prevent transmission absolutely, I am a walking health risk.
GFTB: But that’s like saying… Well, it’s impossible to prevent pregnancy absolutely, so that’s like saying any straight couple is “at risk” of pregnancy. The only way to prevent anything from happening is to be abstinent.
ELLA: And we would be so bored if we were abstinent.
GFTB: I would also be really angry all the time.
ELLA: I would be so stressed out. I feel like I deal best with my anxiety by fucking someone.
GFTB: That’s one of the perks of sex, you feel very relaxed afterward.
ELLA: Shifting gears: Does anyone in your life know that you’re having sex with someone who has herpes?
GFTB: A lot of my friends do. I don’t talk to my family about people I have sex with in general; that always goes poorly or they ask, “Well when are you bringing them hooome?” With my friends, though, my best friends know who I’m having sex with. And it’s not a secret—if someone asked me, “Hey, are you having sex with Ella Dawson?” I’d probably be like, “Yeah, I am. I don’t know how you found out, but sure.” I’m totally fine with that. It’s not a big deal for people to know. And if they judge me for it, that’s a risk I take, I guess? But I don’t care what people think when it comes to that.
ELLA: I’ve had partners who loved me to bits and are proud of me but have not told their family what I do, and I’m always like, what are you going to do if your parents Google me? It’s something I think about if I start dating somebody seriously: I’m not saying you have to sit your folks down and tell them I have herpes, but how much can I be myself around the people in your life? I’m a weird case in that having an STI is a big part of who I am because of the work that I do. If someone just has herpes, I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business unless they want it to be. But in my case it’s different. And then some people I’ve fucked have friends who are concerned and worried for them.
GFTB: I think my friends would know that if I’m having sex with someone with herpes, I’m being safe and smart about it.
RELATIONSHIP STATUS: getting laid frequently enough that I no longer feel the need to tweet about it every time. just like, sometimes.
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) March 25, 2016
ELLA: What’s it like to be involved with someone who is so open online about her sex life?
GFTB: I find it very sexy. It’s hot to me when you tweet about the sex that we have and it’s all positive. That makes me feel really good! I think it’s great that you find it necessary to talk about it. I also like talking about sex and hearing about it, and when I’m involved in it in some way, that’s even better. So when you’re telling 4,000 people about the sex that we have, I’m like, This is great.
ELLA: The people know about your dick.
GFTB: People gotta know about this dick!
ELLA (snorting): Are you nervous for me to write more feature-type stuff?
GFTB: No, I’m looking forward to it.
ELLA: I haven’t been on the other side of this before, I haven’t dated a writer, so I’m curious if it’s weird to hear about sex you’ve had from the other person’s perspective? You basically get a crash course in what’s happening in Ella’s brain.
GFTB: I love it. I get to read about what you liked about it, what you retained from the sex that we had. And then I get to use that information later. So it’s fun for you too!
ELLA: It’s like a report card.
GFTB: It’s a really sexy report card.