What Herpes Activism Looks Like In Trump’s America

I still remember the day I wrote my first blog post about having genital herpes. It was January and it was cold and I was sitting in my childhood bed with my laptop, wondering if I was seriously going to do this. The essay poured out of me in a rush, the words ready to be written after months of holding on, collecting, coming together into something worth the risk. I expected to be afraid when I hit publish, but I was overwhelmed by relief. I cried a little bit. I was out.

That was nearly two years ago. Writing about herpes ceased to feel scary, or even risky, at some point in 2015. That first initial confession about my STI led to the discussion of other topics, buried deeper, even more shameful: my history of abuse, my mental illness, my sexuality. There are a few topics left that I haven’t gotten to yet. I know that my boredom when it comes to talking about herpes—and let’s call a spade a spade, it is boredom—is a rare accomplishment underlined by success and privilege. I’m over it, y’all. I’m not ashamed of it, I’m not surprised by it, and while I still get angry about stigma, I don’t have much left to say about stigma either. Stigma is bad. People and publications and pop culture that perpetuate it is bad. Herpes itself has become pretty whatever.

My writing took me in new directions this year. I’ve become invested in safer social media and Internet practices, and I stirred up major drama accidentally by asking News Genius to offer me a way to opt-out from its users annotating my blog posts. I care deeply, and more often than not quake with rage, about how social media platforms enable and excuse abuse. I’ve been harassed and silenced and stalked and defamed on Twitter, and then on YouTube, and then on conservative websites. Eventually I wrote a viral essay on Medium about how the Alt-Right targeted me as a feminist activist, the very same Alt-Right that fought so hard to elect our next President, the one and only Donald Trump. I started to volunteer for Hillary Clinton. She wrote me a letter. And then she lost.

Women who identified themselves as fans of mine have scolded me on Facebook and Twitter for “getting political” in the last few months. They tell me that I should stick to herpes and leave current affairs in this country out of it. I don’t know what to tell these women, these “fans” of mine who have “DEPLORABLE” in their Twitter name. My work, herpes or otherwise, has never been apolitical. Herpes stigma is a political issue: it stems from inadequate healthcare treatment, from poor sex education, from conservative views on sexuality and gender, from pharmaceutical companies who wanted to make some cash so they stigmatized a skin condition. And even when I wasn’t talking about the political nature of STIs, there’s only one side of the political divide that has sent me rape threats, and death threats, and called me a “degenerate whore,” and told me I should be branded with an H so that I can’t infect anyone else. Donald Trump’s America is not an America that is receptive to learning about the social construction of herpes stigma. It’s not receptive to me talking about much of anything as a young, queer millennial woman who enjoys premarital sex.

I was talking to my therapist following the election about how I don’t know what to do next. I have so little left to say about herpes, and I feel powerless imagining the next four years. What impact could I have? She laughed at me, not unkindly. She pointed out how Trump and Pence will gut reproductive rights. She pointed out that my herpes activism has always been about politics, and the fight is only getting started. I’m just getting started. I’m only twenty-four.

Many of my blog posts have been about herpes activism on an individual level: how you can date after getting diagnosed, how you can feel better, how you can tell your partners. But it’s time to do the systemic work and take on the underlying structural issues that make herpes stigma so powerful. Some of those systemic and cultural issues are blatantly political: Planned Parenthood must stay open so that we can receive affordable testing, treatment, and protection. Donald Trump’s perpetuation of rape culture cannot be brushed under the rug when conversations about consent are only beginning. We must provide sex education to every young person, regardless of their gender, race, wealth, or sexual orientation. And intimate partner violence and emotional abuse must be fought twice as hard with an abuser in the Oval Office. These are issues that overlap with herpes stigma, and they are issues I can and will fight for.

This is a political space. If that’s not what you are interested in, I will not apologize for it. But I must ask you: What did you think ending herpes stigma would require? Where did you expect this cause to go? Herpes may not discriminate between political parties, but herpes sure as hell made me want to advocate for liberal causes. If that makes me a “libtard” in your eyes, you’re free to unfollow, unlike, and unsubscribe.

As for those of you still with me, we’ve got some work to do.

I urge you to donate to Planned Parenthood and invest in sexual healthcare.

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

11 thoughts on “What Herpes Activism Looks Like In Trump’s America

  1. You’re writing doesn’t just fill me with calm and reservation about having herpes, it emboldens me and encourages me and inspires me to be filled with courage and strength that i can take on the world not caring about such trivial things that were made to depress you through stigma. So thank you very much

  2. ella soy de Chile, y quiero decirte que te apoyo en todo y sobretodo en como piensas, estoy de acuerdo en todo lo que dices, imaginate que en mi pais este estigma es mucho mayor … las personas sufren depresion en silencio, creo que tus palabras y tu ejemplo me d fuerzas para estar bien para sentir que soy una persona importante. la politica esta ligada a todo lo que hacemos y en todos los aspectos, es desde ella en que podemos actuar!, ella espero que sigas asi ! te felicito por tu valentia y por querer hacer un mundo mejor.

  3. I want to echo maggie’s sentiments about your courage and bravery, even if you don’t necessarily feel you are. I’m grateful for the stories you share. I don’t go through this firsthand, but it has given me a different perspective on an issue I never really considered. We need more people like you.

  4. there are very very few as brave as you. you are a champion ella. you are what the world needs, not just for herpes, but for the right thing in general. every person up on their high horse judging others has at least one secret in their closet that they don’t want exposed. we are all affected by something, but some people feel better about themselves by pointing the finger at and judging others. those are the people that need to be shaken, to stop the judging, to stop the victimization. trump’s america is and will be a scary place, but it can’t last forever, and there are a lot of people, leaders included, who are already mounting their fight. you are up there with them. and i am in awe of your courage.

  5. I don’t know why so many people shy away from politics. This isn’t a separate part of our lives, it runs right through our lives and affects every part of them – such as education, healthcare, law and order, etc. Without brave, fearless people such as you speaking out on issues we should all care about, the bullies and scoundrels of this world would get away with murder (quite literally in some instances). I hope you will continue to hold these people to account. And if people tell you that you shouldn’t involve yourself in politics, tell them we should all be involved in politics. Good luck for your future campaigning.

  6. I think there is a lot to say about pop culture perpetuating the stigma. As a budding comedy writer in Hollywood. I think it is important that people like me work from the inside to help reframe the stigma. Use the media, tv and film, to show and explain that herpes really just is a skin condition because that’s where young people find their values via media.

  7. You’re good medicine for the real disorders: bigotry and ignorance. The personal is ever the political. We’re fighting at your side, and you at ours, even if we can’t all sense each other all of the time. We’re not all the same. Diversity in life as in tactics. But I’m with you, and I will fight for you, in my way, in a way I hope will help, and you are fighting and helping from your own vantage point. There is no where to go but outward 🙂

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