In an incredibly powerful Connecticut College TEDx Talk that was posted to YouTube yesterday, 23-year-old Ella shocked her audience by telling them all that she has herpes. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they, too, have herpes; no hands went up. Then, Ella spent the next 15 minutes perfectly illustrating how the audience’s fear of admitting to having a sexually transmitted infection is exactly the reason there is so much stigma surrounding STIs.
Ella explained that when she was diagnosed with herpes in college, she had never thought it would happen to her. “People with herpes, in my mind, were dishonest, irresponsible, promiscuous, unfaithful. . . What I learned very quickly was that [this] really intense, deeply engrained stereotype was the result of a very powerful social stigma that surrounds STDs like herpes in our society,” she said in the talk.
But although we’re told to “get tested” (although, as Ella points out, many of the typical tests don’t test for herpes), we’re not educated about what happens after we’re diagnosed; we’re taught to keep quiet — which just feeds into the myth that people with STIs are dishonest. The only way Ella was able to really get information was by hopping on Google and researching it herself — only to find that two of every three people in the world have the same kind of herpes she does.
But despite the fact that so much of the population has herpes, and even more of the population has at least one STI, it’s still a deeply stigmatized issue, leading to blame, guilt, and shame — all of which make it unbelievably difficult for people who have STIs to communicate to their partners.
“An STI, especially herpes, is not a reflection of your character or a consequence of a bad decision,” Ella explained in the talk. “It is an inevitability of being a human being on this planet who comes into skin contact with other human beings. . . When you say to another person, hey, here’s this thing that makes me vulnerable, that I’m nervous about, but you deserve to know it, because I respect you, and I want you to make the right decisions about your sexual health.”
Ella told HelloGiggles that the response to the talk has been “really positive” so far. “People are ready for a real conversation about sexual health, and herpes in particular,” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense anymore to be judgmental or silent about an STI that so many millions of people live with.”
Her ultimate goal, she explained, is to open up a dialogue. “I hope that my talk kicks off a conversation, not only online and in sex-positive and feminist circles, but between friends and partners and family,” Ella explained to HelloGiggles. “My talk will have succeeded if it makes it easier for people with STIs to share their experiences with the loved ones they’ve been too scared to confide in before.”
All of the props to Ella for keeping this conversation going. Although protecting against STIs and STDs is important, it’s even more essential to stop the shaming and stigmatization of millions of people all over the world. The more we break down the taboo, the more we can have these conversations in the bedroom and foster an accepting space for everyone — because being safe and sex-positive can, and should, go hand in hand.