Why I Don’t Call Herpes a “Gift”

Here’s a fun question: how do we take back what has happened to us?

The answer for me has always been writing. Even if I can’t force difficult experiences to make sense, I can capture details in rainbow prism sentences. There are moments I’ve preserved until I have the maturity and perspective to understand why they matter: my ex’s hands gentle at my throat as he unclasps my favorite necklace, the loving breath of a man who doesn’t respect me. Words give me ownership of the complex and uncategorizable.

There is not a wealth of language for members of the STI community to describe our experiences. Herpes and other stigmatized viruses aren’t represented (positively) in pop culture and are largely missing from the canon of illness literature; trying to find a memoir about life with herpes is a noble and doomed pursuit… for now. It’s up to us to create our own vocabulary, and the slang we make thrives in certain corners of the Internet and not others. For example, I had no idea what a “bug chaser” was until a creepy fan opined about how grateful he would be to receive herpes from me. An older herpes-positive woman responded to my freaked out tweet to explain that there are people on chat boards who fetishize STIs (but that’s a whole other blog post).

Sometimes slang is useful and illuminating. Seeing your experiences articulated perfectly by someone else can make you feel less alone and help you understand what you are going through. Other times slang can perpetuate stigma or further marginalize others. We don’t all have to speak the same language, and if a term helps someone, that is worth celebrating. But as a writer, I deal in word choice and the unfortunate way language moves out of our hands and into the toolboxes of those who dehumanize us.

When it comes to the vibrant web of hurt and guilt that is how I contracted herpes, words have never been of much use. Language fails this swampland of memory. I’ll never know who, or in which direction, or what could have been done differently. No explanation will ever heal that wound anyway—the best actions I can take are steps forward, away. The how and the why aren’t irrelevant, but they’re not helpful. There will never be a neat story there.

As shown by my experience, there is no easy way to describe the person who gave you herpes. Transmission is often confusing, unclear, and a stone’s throw away from the judgment of someone involved. When I joined the herpes community on Tumblr, I learned that the person who gave you herpes can be called your “gifter,” the person who gave you the “gift” of herpes. The term made me uncomfortable but I was grateful as a herpes newbie for the shorthand. As time has gone on, and as herpes narratives more often reach mainstream media, “gifter” is increasingly difficult for me to swallow.

Referring to herpes as a “gift” is usually a tongue-in-cheek joke or a genuine recasting of herpes as something positive. Many of us do find that our lives improve after a diagnosis, if not immediately, at least eventually—herpes teaches us how to have conversations about sex with our partners, and can force us to re-evaluate our company and redefine who we are. These life changes can lead to real confidence, reflection and maturity. I’ve spoken of how herpes made my sex life better, a thrilling sound bite for journalists who leave out the part about learning how to discuss what I need in relationships. Good things have happened to me after my diagnosis, and speaking of those good things fights the stereotype of the ruined woman, damaged beyond repair. My life is pretty great. Herpes wasn’t the end of me.

That being said, I don’t think of herpes as a gift. For one thing, receiving herpes wasn’t consensual. Regardless of whether or not the person who gave me herpes knew his status, I did not choose to risk receiving it, and I do not look upon the memory with confidence or agency. I would love a word for this muddled lack of consent—I consented enthusiastically to the sex, not to the virus, and I was not assaulted, but my body was forever changed. To describe a man who was emotionally abusive as my “gifter” feels revolting, a pink bow on a broken experience. Survivors of coercion, abuse, assault and betrayal are not likely to find “gifter” an apt or comfortable term. Calling someone a “gifter” rather than a rapist, an abuser, a liar, or a cheater, lets them off the hook. I have a lot of patience with people who don’t disclose, perhaps more than I should, but in the rare case that someone is a genuinely shitty human being, they have no gifts to offer anyone.

If thinking of herpes as a gift makes you feel better and helps you understand the positive changes in your life after diagnosis, I will not question or criticize you. If you refer to your partner as your “gifter,” I can only envy the clarity that label gives you. But I take issue with language being slapped across all of us, because herpes is not always a gift. For me, it was new DNA, new ribbons of information about who I am and why. For some, herpes is scar tissue and medical challenges. For even more, herpes is an unknown, an undetected detail of their body that they may never discover.

Describing herpes as a gift also gives it immense power—it defines us as a positive, rather than a negative, but it defines us nonetheless. All of these positive changes in my life? All of the healthy relationships and the smart decisions and the ownership of my health and body? I did that, not herpes. To say that herpes changed my life continues to make me passive, rather than a woman who worked very hard to survive. And when our STI is packaged as inspiration porn for the STI-negative, when we are a surprise-gap personal essay about how this shitty thing actually made us better, beautiful people, we are commodified for clicks. I’m hardly innocent of playing the viral Internet game, positioning my experience for higher traffic, but I make every effort to speak only for myself. And although I’m not sure if I’ve used “gift” language in my writing—I may have, as my thinking has evolved considerably over the last three years—I will avoid it in the future.

After all the good that has come of my life since going public, the MTV appearance, the Washington Post coverage, all of it, I’d be poised to find meaning in the stars and form a constellation: herpes, the gift that gave my life meaning! I know I can project this grinning image of a young and together millennial, an inspirational and flat figure. I’ve been criticized for making herpes look easy, and people rightfully point out my privilege (I am white and cis and straight-passing, and I’ll take it as a compliment if you argue I have “pretty privilege”). I wouldn’t go back and change anything, that much is true. Not having regrets is a strange type of luxury. But hell, if this gift came with a receipt? Well. I might think twice about that.

We need to make space for nuance as the conversation about STIs becomes more than the occasional personal essay on a lady blog. An STI diagnosis does not have to be the end of the world, but it does not have to define us either. My wish is for herpes to mean whatever it should for us individually. Herpes will never be neat enough to fit on a decorative throw pillow, and that needs to be okay. Acceptance doesn’t mean simplicity; it means being allowed the breathing room to represent many experiences, many perspectives, many strains of slang. How do we take back what has happened to us? We take it back like this.

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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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