Flo Fitzgerald describes how an STI diagnosis at 19 has affected her.
I’m back at university and it’s freshers week. I’m in second year, so there’s none of last year’s stress of meeting new people. Going to a party, I am excited to be single and chat to someone new. It’s obvious we are attracted to each other, and he invites me upstairs. Things progress, but he soon tells me things aren’t quite over with someone else, and we break off on reasonably good terms.
So far, so normal. I know it seems strange that I cry for hours afterwards, that I sit with my fingers in my throat, that I wake up with no words to explain how I feel.
I am 19, and I was diagnosed with herpes last month. I have never been so fucking afraid of rejection.
I pride myself on being an angry feminist, and consent is my ‘hot topic’, if you like. The ‘no means no’ doctrine is useful and one every halfway-decent person should be aware of, but I have always been more interested in positive consent. I know that as a woman it can be easy to dissociate from sex, viewing it more as a way of giving someone else what they want – and it is so important to take control of our desires instead. It worries me that, as a teenager, me and my friends would talk about virginity as something we wanted to get rid of as soon as possible, to move on in our lives without that label.
Now, however, I know that I love sex. After the breakdown of a long term relationship, I have finally discovered masturbation and the glorious, ethical, beautiful pornography of Erika Lust. I also know that, for me, sex is not inextricably linked to love. I started a casual relationship with someone who was intriguing and a lot of fun. The timing was in no way right for anything serious, but for a few weeks I felt more beautiful and interesting than I have in a long time.
On the last day before I go back to university, I am sat crying. A GP awkwardly hands me tissues and my head is throbbing. She has just told me that the sores I had tried to convince myself were caused by shaving are actually symptoms of herpes.
All I can think is, this shouldn’t be me.
Why, when I have advocated for improved sex education, do I know next to nothing about this condition? What’s worse than having sex with a feminist? Probably having sex with a feminist with herpes.
I want to write this because a genital herpes diagnosis shouldn’t be life changing. The 70% of us who suffer from cold sores aren’t warned that it will take someone special to accept a physical relationship with us; aren’t told to take medicine every day of our lives; we don’t feel the need to keep it a secret or disclose it as a serious issue to potential partners. The risk of getting a cold sore is something the minority without them are happy to accept.
Why then are oral and genital herpes considered so different? I think there’s a number of reasons. First off, the sores are not immediately visible, meaning that people feel the need for a ‘confession’ of sorts. Also, it is perceived as a more serious condition (although this is hardly true). Additionally, any issues to do with genitals are automatically stigmatised.
On top of this, I think STIs are a feminist issue which is rarely explored. We are taught in school to fear them, avoid them at all costs – but not how to cope with a diagnosis. Even the terminology we use to talk about STIs – “don’t worry, I’m clean”- is indicative of a mentality that people with them are ‘dirty’ and ‘other’.
*Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die*:
The reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
I realised recently that I have always thought of STIs as something that happens to other, more promiscuous people. When I searched on Google (a terrible mistake) after my diagnosis I realised how many people felt the same. Every time I looked at a post with someone asking about advice for what to do because their girlfriend/date/casual partner (invariably the person posting was a hetero male) had confessed they had herpes, there was scores of comments from other men telling them to ‘avoid the herp’ at all costs. Their mentality was that the girl couldn’t have any particular qualities which another, ‘clean’ one, wouldn’t.
Are we forgetting that sex will always carry a risk? To avoid pregnancy, should we only have sex with people who are infertile? Do we always ask a one night stand if they have been tested, and avoid at all costs if they haven’t? And with the new knowledge that, of the 1 in 6 people carrying herpes, 87% will never know, should we abstain from sex altogether?
I know that talking to future partners will be hard, but I’ve decided to use it as the ultimate dick indicator. If someone decides not to have sex with me because of something they’re extremely likely to come into contact with anyway, that’s a choice they’re absolutely entitled to. But I would hazard that these people can never be fully informed.
Safe sex is extremely important, but so is self-love. I am giving myself the right to say yes again.
Flo Fitzgerald is a pseudonym.
Illustration by Maegan Farrow.