Ella Dawson has herpes, and talking about it is sort of her thing. She writes herpes-themed erotica; she gave a TED talk about herpes; and is the author of “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes” and “Why I Celebrate the Day I Was Diagnosed with Herpes.” All this, and she’s only had two outbreaks — which is a pretty standard herpes experience. On this week’s Sex Lives podcast, Ella gets real about unprotected sex, dating with herpes, meeting a woman who has genital herpes on her inner elbow, and learning about sex from Harry Potter fan fiction.
This is a partial transcript from New York Magazine’s Sex Lives podcast, edited for clarity and length.
How did you start writing about herpes?
There was this really interesting debate happening in the erotica-writing community about whether or not it should be required to include condoms in sex scenes. I was a really new erotica author at that point — I hadn’t been published in anything, but I was blogging regularly and I felt like there was this weird disconnect in that conversation, with nobody talking about the fact that people have STDs, too, and that people with STDs have sex. I felt like I had to say something, and I wound up writing an essay on my blog about how I’m an erotica author and I have herpes. And when I write erotica, it’s impossible for me to not think about sex and the risks associated with sex, because that’s my own life. It was the first time I had ever publicly announced that I had herpes online. It was a really scary moment, but it also felt super liberating.
And what I didn’t expect was the essay had this huge response, first from the erotica community. And then from friends and friends of friends and random people I went to college with who don’t even read erotica but had my blog forwarded to them and said, “Oh my god, I have herpes, too.” It changed my life in a weird way because suddenly I realized that so many people had this experience that I did, and it made me want to keep writing about it. It was kind of like I had opened Pandora’s box, and inside was a lot of really entertaining Facebook comments. And I never turned back! It’s been a huge part of my life ever since.
Can we get into that? Of how herpes actually plays out in a love life? You said it made your sex life even better.
I may have been slightly exaggerating for comedic effect … So just to backtrack a little bit, when I was in college, I had a bit of a reputation that I enjoyed: I was the editor of the college sex magazine, I was planning my thesis on feminist erotica, I didn’t have a ton of casual sex because that wasn’t something I was super interested in, but I did have some.
I don’t think there were campus sex magazines when I was in college. Is this a micro-generational divide?
Got to go to Wesleyan, where everyone is extremely weird. But yeah, so I had this kind of reputation that I had fun owning. And I wound up meeting somebody who I fell for really, really fast. He was the one-night stand that just never left my apartment and suddenly we were in a relationship. And a few weeks into the relationship, I woke up with an outbreak of really gross sores and I was really upset and I did that like horrible Google search of like, “Oh my god, what is this? Please don’t tell me it’s herpes.” But of course it is.
… I have in my life only had two herpes outbreaks. I had the first one which was terrible and lasted about a week and a half maybe or a week and I was on Valtrex. Not a pleasant experience. And then I had my second outbreak, I think two years later. I was working a very stressful conference in a really wacky time zone, and my body was just kind of in a panic. My body broke down and I had an outbreak, and it was really actually anticlimactic because I’d been dreading having another outbreak for so long. But I had, like, a few sores. For two or three days, I was moderately uncomfortable. And then they were gone within, like, four days. And I was like, oh, I had been so afraid of this happening, and it was fine.
I’ve had a lot of sinus infections in my life, and I would much rather have herpes than sinus infections. Because sinus infections will, like, knock out your brain and mess you up and last forever. But I’ve had two herpes outbreaks and I was able to go to work and nobody knew what was going on, and I just took Tylenol and Valtrex and I was fine. It’s so overblown. And there are people who have more serious strains of herpes and it can mess with your body in different ways. It’s not super chill for everyone, but for the vast majority of people it’s just an annoying skin condition that pops up every so often. I have friends who have had one outbreak in their entire life. It’s not as big as people make it out to be.
What is that conversation? Is this like a first-date conversation for you? Tinder conversation?
One of my favorite Tinder conversations was, I had been flirting with this guy. He was flirting with me and invited me to his hotel, basically. And I was like, I usually wait until I’ve had a gin and tonic before I tell someone this, but I have herpes and here’s what you should know. And he’s like, “Oh, I’ve known for 20 minutes. I googled you already.” And I was like, “Great! Cool. We don’t have to talk about it.”
So I get it out of the way super fast because it’s freeing, and the sooner you bring it up and the more casual and confident you are when you talk about it, the more reassured that other person is as well. A mistake that I made when I was still newly diagnosed was I would frequently tell somebody with a lot of, “I’m so sorry, I hope this doesn’t change the way you think of me.” I set them up to think it’s a really scary thing. Whereas now when I have those conversations, they’re like, “Oh by the way, I have this thing,” or, “Hi, I’m internet famous for having herpes.” My delivery is so much more confident — and usually funny — that the other person comes to it from a different frame of mind, and those conversations are a lot more successful and comfortable.