In an essay in Women’s Health, Ella Dawson describes finding out she had genital herpes just a few days before turning 21. She was shocked, considering she had never had unprotected sex, but she quickly learned that condoms do not always protect against the STD.
The Center for Disease Control states that 1 in 6 people in the US have genital herpes, and that although some forms of herpes outbreaks occur in areas covered by latex condoms, “outbreaks can also occur in areas that are not covered by a condom, so condoms may not fully protect you from getting herpes.”
But Dawson, a sexual studies major and Planned Parenthood volunteer, couldn’t get over the thought that she had contracted a disease when she had been so careful. After some more research on the herpes virus, she was convinced there was an unfair stigma being perpetrated.
“Stigma is what keeps people from chatting about herpes the way they discuss allergies – we associate herpes with liars, cheaters, and the rampantly promiscuous,” Dawson explained in her essay.
Many articles on the subject of overcoming the herpes stigma discuss the relative mildness of the disease in comparison to HIV and HPV, which can cause cancer in females.
“The main harm in suffering herpes, as many will attest to, comes from the dread of telling your partner the truth,” wrote Eric Sabo in the New York Times.
After a few awkward admissions of her new condition to potential sexual partners – and one painful rejection – Dawson decided to take the stigma of her STD into her own hands. She began telling people outright about her having herpes, whether they were friends or strangers.
She called it “dropping the herpes bomb” in casual conversations, in an effort to normalize the condition and free herself from the guilt she had built up.
“Fighting the cultural stigma surrounding STDs is a battle I actually enjoy fighting,” said Dawson. “I’m not afraid of letting herpes define me if it helps someone newly diagnosed feel less alone.”