BY EMILY DEPASSE
As syllabus week comes to a close and the scent of Rise Up’s freshly-brewed pumpkin spiced lattes drift through the Academic Commons, many of us may find ourselves in the midst of a new fall romance.
Maybe we met him in our English 103 class, maybe he helped you carry your over packed suitcase to your sixth-floor room in Severn, or maybe it was that cute blonde with the dimples at Mojo’s last Friday night. While we try to figure this person into the context of our lives as a one-night stand, friend-with-benefits, or potential significant other, what we’re likely not thinking of is sharing our sexual histories.
Last July, after I graduated from Salisbury, I was diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The beginning of my story is similar to most that one might find while searching the internet.
There I was, lying on an urgent care table, searching for possible answers as to the cause of the pain below my waist—praying it was anything but an STD. That day, I walked out of the doctor’s office with a positive culture for herpes. As I sat in the car, the scariest thoughts that echoed between my ears were, “Who will want me? Who will love me?”
These seemingly desperate questions continued to weigh heavily on me for some time. One of the first, and probably most important, lessons I have learned over the last 16 months occurred that day at the doctor. An STD does not have a “type.” An STD is not a punishment. If you engage in any kind of sexual activity, there is always a risk.
In my personal opinion, if you cannot have a discussion regarding your sexual history, or your health status — with yourself or your partners — you should not be engaging in sexual activity with others.
Part of the problem surrounding these conversations that we should be having (but would rather neglect) is the stigma of contracting an STD. Society presents STDs as punishments for being too promiscuous. Herpes, especially, is often the butt of many jokes. For example, in “The Hangover” the character Sid says, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. Except Herpes, that shit’ll come back with you.”
This type of humor perpetuates the myth that only a certain type of person can contract an STD. I vividly recall trying to associate herpes into my identity on that first day—“But I’m not the type of girl to get an STD,” I thought to myself. This internal struggle serves as evidence that I, too, once fell victim to the stigma prior to my diagnosis.
During my time as an undergraduate student at Salisbury University, I majored in Gender and Sexuality Studies with aspirations of becoming a sex therapist. Despite a basic working knowledge of sexually transmitted diseases and infections, the factual information I acquired through my education did not delve deep enough to guide me through my herpes diagnosis.
There were questions I had that were still left unanswered by my coursework, so I searched further. Each night, I would spend hours researching the internet about herpes before falling asleep. Amidst a wealth of statistics, I was most surprised to find women like myself. Ella Dawson, another herpes positive writer, became somewhat of a heroine and inspiration for me. Ella’s writings provided an unanswered depth, and shed new light on issues neither my professors nor my doctors really addressed.
I discovered that vulnerability is an important piece of the puzzle that is absent from our educational system. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) throws facts and numbers at us, and our professors do their best to convey their meaning and importance, but these numbers are often difficult to believe when there is such a stigma revolved around discussion and disclosure. Currently, the CDC reports that about 1 in 6 people between the ages of 14 and 49 contract one form of herpes, yet we all seem to share in a sense of loneliness.
Since coming out about my herpes positive status, I have realized the power of conversation. I was inspired to start my own blog about the experiences I faced stemming from herpes to matters of the heart and, most recently, a combination of the two. And yes, there is the possibility of love and affection after an STD diagnosis.
When we think about revealing an STD diagnosis, or simply discussing our sexual history, a common theme appears. Ella’s TED Talk sums it up best: “…there are a lot scarier things to tell another person in this world than ‘I have an STI.’ Things like: ‘I deserve a raise.’ Or, ‘I’m sorry that I hurt you.’ Or, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you.’”
These little conversations filled with tremendous honesty are what break down stigma; telling a close friend, confiding in a sibling, telling your parents. Even telling a stranger in a coffee shop. Revealing our innermost truths to people is scary, no doubt, but it is important to look at the depth they reveal about ourselves and the weight that each one carries.
Each time we engage in a sexual experience, we are taking a risk. Clothes seem to fall with such ease, yet, when the idea of conversation comes about, we take a step back. We are more hesitant to vocally share that side of ourselves—whether it’s a kink we’re into, an STD diagnosis or even prior history of assault or abuse.
As the semester begins and summer tan lines fade away, take that conversational risk. In sharing your sexual history with this season’s latest crush, you are not only beginning a conversation with that person, but building a place for honesty in your relationships with yourself and beyond.