On April 14, Ella Dawson ’14 published an essay called “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes” in Women’s Health. Within 48 hours, it was clear that the media had taken Dawson up on her offer to be the face of herpes: the story was picked up by media outlets from Jezebel to The Daily Mail, and Dawson found herself inundated with messages from people thanking her and asking questions. The Argus sat down with Dawson at a sunny table outside Usdan—she joked that she’s been back to visit campus an embarrassingly large number of times since her graduation last May—to talk about her recent media outbreak (it’s O.K., she’s cool with herpes puns).
The Argus: First of all, to what extent are the headlines sensationalist? Do you really go around telling everyone you have herpes?
Ella Dawson: Well, I did write the headline for the “Women’s Health” article. I work in social media, so I know what’s click-y. And it’s an exaggeration in the sense that I don’t drop it randomly; I don’t go up to strangers and say, “Hi, I’m Ella Dawson, and I have herpes.” That’s useless. But I do bring it up with people who know me well. It’s something that I enjoy discussing with people to help them understand better and to get to know me better, and because it’s something that I believe in. There were some crazy headlines, and a lot of people in the headlines were saying, “That’s so rude, and it’s oversharing.” And that’s people who really only read the headline. So they’re a little ridiculous, but I do love bringing it up. Obviously.
A: Does it ever feel invasive when the media asks such personal questions?
ED: I’ve gotten one or two invasive questions. The first thing people immediately want to ask is, “How did you get it?” And I hate that question for a couple reasons. One, there’s a judgment that comes with that. A lot of people will say, “Oh, I got it because I was cheated on,” or “I got it in a long term relationship, and it’s not my fault,” sort of thing. That’s a way that people dodge the stigma and deal with it. And it’s also not my story alone. Someone gave it to me. I’ve made the choice to be the face of this, and to share my story with the world, but my partners haven’t. So I don’t really know how to answer that eloquently, because my impulse is to say, “Screw you for asking.” And it’s not something I can answer fully. It’s not my right to.
A: Have you gotten many negative reactions?
ED: People very rarely act negatively to my face, and the media has largely been so kind and supportive. I haven’t had any blatant negative reactions. I try not to read the comments on things, because the internet is full of crazy people, but I think my favorite negative reaction is when someone said, “Well, she’s exactly the person you’d expect to get herpes.” And I’m like, “You know what? I’ll take that.” I talk about sex. I’m not ashamed of my life and the choices I’ve made. So if that’s what fits the stereotype for you, that’s fine. The only people who have reacted negatively have been very stupid, or people who I was never going to win over—people who are very conservative and think sex is for marriage. They were always going to hate me.
A: In the Women’s Health article, you talk about discussing herpes the way you’d chat about allergies. Is that the eventual goal, and what needs to happen for talking about herpes to become routine?
ED: I think a lot needs to happen, which is sad to say. I would love it if it were something people talked about the way they talk about any other sort of medical condition, because at the end of the day it is just a skin condition, and a lot of people who have herpes don’t even get it through sexual transmission. I have a lot of friends who have had oral herpes their entire life, because a family member kissed them on the mouth when they had a cold sore. For them, it’s not a sexual thing at all. So I’d love for it to get to a point where people are comfortable talking about those experiences. In order for that to happen, people need to talk about their experiences. We need more people to not necessarily tell the world the way I do, because that’s a lot for people to do, but for people to be more willing to chat. And I’ve seen that start to happen. I’ve seen it happen with my coworkers, who read my piece and who were all completely supportive; they’ve turned around and started talking about their herpes to me and their other coworkers. There’s a ripple effect that’s been wide and lovely, so hopefully we’ll get there.
A: What’s perpetuating this stigma? Is it pop culture?
ED: I think a huge amount of it is pop culture. And I’m going to say that because I did feminist media analysis at Wesleyan, but that’s definitely the way I received it: watching sitcoms and Judd Apatow films. It’s such an easy insult and way to shut people down. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who said that once you become a teenager, you’ve said all the swear words; they’ve lost their effect. Saying about somebody, “Haha, they probably have herpes,” is a new insult that people learn when they’re in their teens. So pop culture is part of it, and also the fact that people who are young haven’t been exposed to it in a real way.
And the other part would be the way the health care system treats herpes. They stigmatize it. Doctors won’t go out of their ways to test you for it. Most people at Wesleyan, the conversation is just, “Get tested.” So they think, “I’ll go pee in a cup at Davison and I’m fine,” not realizing that that’s really only covering gonorrhea and chlamydia and more common, or at least more readily treatable, STIs. Doctors will go out of their ways to not treat you unless you specifically ask, and even then, they’ll be like, “Why do you want to get tested? Do you have a partner who’s been exposed?” They think you’re better off not knowing you have it unless you have symptoms, because psychologically it’s such a mindfuck. So the fact that people aren’t getting that transparency from their doctors, who they trust with their health, is a huge part of the reason we don’t discuss this.
A: Have you thought about going into health care policy?
ED: I’ve thought about it, but I just don’t have a policy brain. That’s something I learned at Wesleyan, surrounded by people who love politics and activism and want to go down those conventional routes. It’s just not the way my brain works. I’m more of a storyteller…. I see myself as an inspirational big sister with herpes who makes people feel more comfortable. But I do think there needs to be reform in the medical world, and just the way we teach sex education.
A: You’ve written about herpes as a punch line, in movies, for example. Do you think humor can actually play a role in mitigating the stigma?
ED: I do! I honestly love good herpes jokes. It’s kind of like whether or not there can be a funny rape joke. If the joke is at the expense of a survivor, if there’s a judgment implied…you have to be punching up, not punching down. I hate herpes jokes about people being trashy or getting what they deserve. I can’t stand those. But when it’s something at the expense of the stigma itself, or if it’s really clever wordplay…if it’s somebody I know who cares about me and is informed, I like a herpes joke…. I definitely think herpes jokes can exist, but very few people get them right.
A: You write erotica. What role has herpes played in your fiction?
ED: It’s definitely made me more aware of how I represent safe sex in erotica. Part of the way that I publicly disclosed [my herpes] to the world was that I wrote a blog post about safe sex and why I personally write safe sex in erotica. For me, I can’t have sex without having a conversation about safety and condoms and what we feel comfortable with. So it’s very hard for me to write about sex without having that in my brain; it’s how my mind works. The results have made erotica that’s very cognizant of the issues, but it’s also [that] I write with more intention than most people do. I take my erotica more seriously than most authors do, for better or for worse. It’s made me a better writer, because I’m more aware of the risk that sex has, whether it’s emotional or very real in terms of health. Engaging with those issues is really fun. I don’t write no “Fifty Shades” crap. A quote that’s going to make me friends.
A: Let’s talk about herpes at Wesleyan. What’s the deal? What most concerns you?
ED: When I was first diagnosed, I had never to my knowledge met anyone with herpes. At all, but especially at Wesleyan. I felt so isolated and so ashamed…. As I told my friends, I got the same thing as, “You’re not the only one; I know other people,” but nobody wanted to name names, because they didn’t want people to have to share that without their consent. So I walked around knowing there were others but having no idea who they were. And it wasn’t until after I graduated that people started to come forward and say, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while, but I saw the work you’re doing….” As time went on and I started to blog about this…I started to get a lot of messages [from] even strangers at Wesleyan, saying, “I got diagnosed weeks ago, and I’m freaking out,” or, “I got diagnosed a year ago, and I still haven’t told anyone, and I’ve totally pulled myself out of the hookup scene,” and there are so many people with herpes here! And there’s no support group, no secret Facebook page, nothing. People deal with it privately, with a lot of fear and a lot of shame, and that’s a problem…. I wish I could still be here and do more of that work.
When I got diagnosed, I went to the health center a few weeks later…and the nurse that I spoke to said that a lot of [first-year] girls get herpes, because they come to Wesleyan, they get tested at the health center—not knowing what they’re being tested for—and they and their partner, whoever it might be, begin having unprotected sex, and they also don’t realize that herpes is very easily transmitted with oral sex, if somebody has a cold sore. So there have been a lot of [first-year] girls especially getting the oral strain of genital herpes.
It never gets talked about, and it drives me insane. Especially as someone who did [Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies], it never came up in any class, in my life, other than to talk about the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. That was really weird. I was like, “Wait, there’s a whole other type of discrimination that even Wesleyan isn’t addressing.” When I did start talking about it, people here were very responsive and very receptive. People here are primed to be accepting and not judgmental. It might not be a conversation we’ve had, but it’s a conversation Wesleyan is ready for. Yeah, Wesleyan needs to get its shit together.
A: A lot of people are calling you brave. How do you define bravery, and do you consider what you’re doing to be courageous?
ED: I’m going to sound like a Wesleyan student when I say this: I have a huge amount of privilege that allows me to do what I’m doing. I’m white, upper-middle class, have a full time job. I work somewhere that is extremely supportive of what I’m doing, and I have past and current partners who are very kind. I could not do this if I were a woman of color. I probably couldn’t do this if I were more queer than I am. It’s very easy for the Internet to be like, “Oh, yes, this is wonderful.” I can pass as being very heteronormative and non-threatening and cute. People have been telling me that I’m brave, but I honestly feel that I’m so lucky that I can do this.
I don’t fear being marked as herpes-positive for the rest of my life. What does scare me, and what does require bravery, is being a woman on the Internet with an opinion, who has “feminist” in her Twitter bio. The heat that I’ve gotten and the scary moments I’ve had since going positive have come from men’s rights activists on the Internet being dicks…. If anyone is going to be the face of herpes, it might as well be a Wesleyan alumna.
A: Do you have any plans for your upcoming herpiversary?
ED: Actually, I don’t, because I’ve been so goddamn busy. My hope is that I’ll just go to a bar with some close friends and get really trashed. It was more fun at Wesleyan, when I lived with a bunch of people who baked me this gigantic cake. Yeah, I don’t know yet. Next year, I’m thinking about getting a tattoo, because fuck it.