10 Essays I Wrote In 2016 That Taught Me Who I Am

What a goddamn year. I don’t want to write a big essay about 2016 and the lessons we should learn from it—if you’re interested in that, go read my closing thoughts on Femsplain, or just throw yourself into the sea. What I do want to do is celebrate myself and everything I accomplished in the midst of the dumpster fire, in true Ella Dawson fashion.

The original headline of this blog post was “Important Shit I Wrote This Year.” Some of these essays were personally important, while others needed to be written for the simple fact that no one else had done so already. Some of them met a backlash, and others were written to respond to a backlash from some other project. But what these essays all share is that they helped me untangle who I am, or that I’m not who I thought I was.

10. How News Genius Silences Writers

Remember that time I picked a fight with one of the most well-funded and catty digital start-ups around? Yeah, me neither! 2016 was fucking nuts. Calling out the product failings and faulty concept of a tool that lets people annotate literally any page on the Internet was a battle I’m glad I picked, and Genius established a better reporting system for abusive annotations as a result (or so I’ve heard). My blog post even wound up earning me my first ever Gawker takedown article (RIP). Months later, I’m still shell-shocked by how quickly that situation spiraled out of control and the amount of vitriol I attracted for requesting a way to opt-out of having my blog about sexual health and trauma scrawled on by arrogant, entitled strangers. Yikes, man. 

9. Why Should I Date Someone With Herpes?

This short little post was the culmination of two and a half years of me graciously dealing with the world’s ignorant bullshit. Being asked to justify your value by well-intentioned but rude strangers stokes a girl’s ire. I might have written this mini-essay in a fit and thrown it up online, but it’s still one of my most popular posts among the herpes community. And folks seemed baffled by me calling out STI stigma as a form of prejudice, which, uh, it is. But this essay gains a place on the list because it contains one of my favorite paragraphs ever. “Why on Earth would I knowingly choose to put myself in danger like that? Is she worth it? I don’t know, man. Does your dick get hard around her? Is she nice?”

8. So You’ve Just Been Diagnosed With Herpes

This guide to Day 1 following your diagnosis desperately needed to be written and I’m really proud of it. It’s comprehensive and gentle and a little silly. I’ve been able to send it to some friends in need and my hope is that it will remain a resource long after I’ve finished writing about STIs. Rereading it now, it seems like an effort to unburden myself too: I wanted to offer final, lasting advice before stepping back from this part of my life and moving forward.

7. My TEDx Talk: STIs aren’t a consequence. They’re inevitable

Once upon a time, I got herpes. A few years later, I gave a TEDx talk on how the media perpetuates herpes stigma, what herpes actually is, and why I talked about it all the goddamn time. I haven’t done much herpes activism since then for a number of reasons, but the most important reason is that I’ve said everything I have to say on the subject. So watch the talk, and then share it, fuckers. Cheers to the culmination of years of work, and of my life, in a solid 16 minutes.

6. How To Give A TEDx Talk When The Internet Wants You To Shut The Fuck Up

Okay so half the reason I want you to watch my TEDx talk is that a LOT OF PEOPLE really didn’t want me to give it. This spring, a bunch of herpes activists tried to create a social media campaign with me called #ShoutYourStatus to push back on stigma during STI awareness month. Then the conservative wacko fringe found it—more on them later— and we got tortured. I spent the weeks before giving my TEDx talk hyperventilating, hiding under my partner’s bed, too afraid to go on the Internet, and generally hating myself and my life and my work. But I gave the talk anyway, and then I wrote about all of it. Content warning for some truly graphic tweets sent to me by terrible fucking people conservatives on Twitter.

5. My Summer On Lexapro

Guess, what?! I have really bad anxiety! And that’s not just me being a whiny little millennial, a precious snowflake, an easily triggered social justice warrior. I have honest to god get me the fuck out of this crowded room sobbing in the security line at Heathrow airport anxiety. And it turns out many of you do too, judging by the response I got when I published this. Here’s my explanation of how my anxiety works. Now please leave me alone, as I do not like strangers.

4. Maybe He Doesn’t Hit You; and My Abusive Ex-Boyfriend, His Fraternity Brothers, And Me

It’s a toxic masculinity double feature!! 2016 was the year I put the final stake in the corpse that was my abusive ex-boyfriend damage. These two essays, one about my experience of emotional abuse and survivor’s guilt, and the other about how his fraternity brothers aided and abetted his bullshit, were beyond cathartic and quite beautiful. I’m about as over what happened to me as I will ever be, and my experiences have made me a fierce antagonist of frat culture. Seriously, fuck your character-building brotherhoods and supposed community works. Your institutions protect and promote rape culture and sexism. Fuck you guys.

3. Who I Am Now

2016 was a year of figuring shit out, from my mental health to my sexual identity. Some of those realizations came from the blunt force of other people fucking me up on the Internet, and being outed as queer by a stalker to my co-workers wasn’t exactly how I would have chosen to realize I’m also attracted to women. But hey, 2016 didn’t let us decide these things. This was one of those essays that felt like deciding who I want to be as a writer and as a human, and I’m immensely fond of it.

2. Good Girl

When 2016 started, I couldn’t have guessed an essay about Daddy kink would be my second favorite writing project of the year. But look, this essay is gorgeous. I don’t even care if that’s not something you should say about yourself. It’s SO GOOD. Put your gut reactions aside and read it—I say that as someone who initially thought Daddy kink was weird and gross and sexist. Sometimes you only find peace in the brilliant smile of a goofball in a dive bar with unusual proclivities.

1. Hillary Clinton, The Alt-Right, And Me

This essay and my other posts about harassment take on a dark resonance as we prepare ourselves for the Trump Years. It turns out that all of those Men’s Rights Activists who targeted me and the other herpes activists in the spring were part of a growing fringe faction within the conservative landscape: the Alt-Right, perhaps better known as racists, neo-Nazis, and conspiracy theory whack jobs. This essay, published on Medium, earned me a letter from Hillary Clinton and 80,000 page views. But more than that, it’s a statement of purpose. This is the work that I want to do, that I have always been meant to do. It’s about more than herpes, more than better anti-harassment features on social media networks. It’s about the abuse and silencing of women. I’m not here for it. Women, LGBTQ and people of color deserve the space to tell their stories without digital or physical violence, and I will fight for that space for the rest of my life.


BONUS ROUND: Here are some of my favorite articles written about me in 2016!

Hillary Clinton Sends Thank You Letter To “Slut” Who Is Proud Of Her Herpes (InfoWars)

Stupid Feminist Skank Ella Dawson Receives Thank You From Hillary For Being Herpes Infected Slut (USBACKLASH.org)

Herpes-Infected Feminist Ella Dawson Decides the 2016 Election Is About Her (The Other McCain)

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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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