Ella Dawson ’14 Talks Herpes, Harassment, and Hillary Clinton

“I was walking back to a friend’s dorm and we had been making out at a party. I was like ‘Just so you know, I have genital herpes. We should use condoms. The risk is pretty small, but it’s there. Are you okay with that?’ And he was like ‘Yeah, I don’t give a fuck.’”

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“Freshman Ella (Butts C!) dressing up like Emma Stone from Easy A just in case you couldn’t tell I REALLY liked sex.”

If you were on campus circa 2010-2014, you probably knew Ella Dawson ’14 as kickass FGSS major and editor-in-chief of Unlocked Magazine. She now works as TED’s social media manager.

In the past two years, Ella has gotten wide recognition for championing STI destigmatization through her blog that she started in her senior year of college. She has also been featured on MTV Founders, Women’s Health, and Femsplain for her writings about living with herpes. Last Spring, Ella gave a TEDx talk on her experiences and her writing. In the past two weeks, Ella’s work has gotten even more recognition.

On September 6th, Ella won the recognition of Hillary Clinton by means of a personalized letter in response to an article she published on Medium entitled Hillary Clinton, The Alt-Right, And Me

I spoke with Ella and we talked about Far-Right Internet Assholes, Hillary Clinton’s letter, how Wes kids can participate in STI destigmatization, and how Wesleyan’s administration doesn’t know what to do with her. Read on for the interview:

Can you summarize some of what’s been happening for you in the past few weeks?

Ella: Sure. I’ll try to be as brief as I can be. I watched Hillary Clinton give a speech in Reno about the Alt-Right and how a lot of Trump supporters are very racist, white nationalist, and terrible and disgusting. She, at one point in the speech, read headlines from the website Breitbart.com out loud, and it kind of blew my mind because I’ve been working in feminist sexual health spaces online and writing a lot about my experience having genital herpes. And, I’ve faced so much harassment from the weird, fringe communities online that are very violent in the way that they interact with women on the internet.

It was really moving to have Hillary Clinton address them head-on and say ‘I’m not afraid of them, but we need to take these people seriously because they’re out impacting our election.’

So, I wrote an essay on Medium outlining how I’ve run afoul of the Alt-Right online. And, pretty quickly, that essay started to go viral. I think it’s because I’m not a famous journalist. I’m not a political figure. I’m just some chick with a blog who’s been writing about herpes.

I’ve been tormented by these people, by very high-profile so-called journalists in the conservative fringe. The essay went viral really quickly, and then I came home from work earlier this week, and I found a letter from Hillary Clinton. It was a personal letter in my mailbox that thanked me for writing the essay and for doing the work that I do.

I immediately tweeted the photo, mostly because I wanted to thank Hillary for writing to me personally, and I didn’t know how to contact her. And also because it was so moving, I wanted to share it with my friends online. Then that tweet went viral. I think it’s at like 10,000 likes and however many retweets now.

As a result, I had a viral week basically. People have been really nice; I definitely had backlash from the Alt-Right, but when you have a personal letter from Hillary Clinton telling you that you’re great, it kind of drowns out any negativity. It’s been really wild.

Yeah, I’ll bet. I saw that you also started a viral hashtag within the past couple days in response to Reince Priebus’ comment about Hillary Clinton not smiling.

Ella: *Laughs* I forgot about that honestly. It’s been such a week.

How does it feel to receive a letter of support from, not only one of the most powerful people on the planet, but someone who has also had to deal with a lot of the same criticisms and personal attacks?

Ella: I was really moved by Hillary’s letter for a lot of different reasons, but mostly because I knew she got it. She has spent so much time in the public sphere being berated for so many things that are most of the time unfounded. She’s faced so much sexist disrespect from the media and from competitors. She’s been called so many derogatory names and been ridiculed and undermined her entire professional career.

She’s not a perfect person and she and her husband have supported political policies in the past that I don’t agree with. She’s like my problematic fave politician in some ways. But, it meant so much to have somebody who has undergone that say ‘I understand. I support you. And, we’re going to change things.’ I’ll never forget that experience of opening that letter and just being overwhelmed by the feeling of it all.

I also think it’s a huge example of why we need more women in leadership and why we need more women in high political offices. Especially in the presidency, because I don’t think men–especially white dudes–can understand what it’s like to have your credibility and your qualifications undermined at every single turn.

And that’s part of the reason I started the presidential face hashtag too. You can say what you want about her debate performance, but Hillary Clinton knows foreign policy. She knows exactly what she’s talking about. Especially when compared to Trump who shows up and just barfs up words and political slogans when he’s asked serious questions. And to have Reince Priebus say ‘Oh, she’s just angry and not smiling enough.’ Like, fuck you. Are you kidding?

It was such a ridiculous, sexist critique and I wanted to scowl at Reince Priebus. I posted a tweet using the hashtag really late at night, and then fell asleep. When I woke up, I found that it had become a trending topic and a Twitter moment.

When did you start your blog and how did you get started with herpes activism?

Ella: I started my blog as an erotica book review blog in my senior year of college. I remember writing my first blog post in January in my Senior Fauver apartment kitchen and being really excited about it.

It started really as a way to review books that I was getting sent for free while I was writing my thesis about erotica. But, it completely changed in its focus as time went on.

Senior year Ella

Senior year Ella

After I graduated from Wesleyan, I started blogging more about my own life and about graduation and having a postgrad identity crisis. Through branching out and writing about sex more generally on my blog, I finally started to write about what it was like to have herpes. I started writing about it by kind of by accident.

I wrote an essay explaining why I, as an erotica author, incorporate or acknowledge whether or not sex involves condoms, whether or not it’s supposedly safe, as they say. And I wrote about how my having an STI influences my writing. That’s why I started writing about herpes. I got such an amazing response from people who also had herpes and were so grateful that somebody else was talking about it. So, I kept going.

It became very therapeutic. I began to make friends who had herpes, and it was really empowering. As a result, a friend of a friend, who works for Women’s Health, asked me if I would be interested in writing an essay for them about what it’s like to date while having herpes because April is STD Awareness Month.

I said yes. It quickly went viral, which I didn’t expect. It’s probably the most-read thing that I will ever write in my life. That really took off and, as a result, I became this weird leader of a new movement that was talking about herpes stigma.

There were people who had written about herpes before but, for some reason, I was the first to go really really viral in the way that I did. And, it all kind of snowballed from there. And here I am, a year and a half later and I’m the herpes girl on the Internet.

Would you say that, for every time you’ve gotten a lot of professional recognition for the work that you’ve done, that it’s always been coupled with backlash from assholes on the Internet? Has there ever been a time where you haven’t received a lot of vicious hate on the internet?

Ella: My first essay that I wrote on my blog and the essay that I wrote for Women’s Health, both of those we’re really highly read; especially the Women’s Health essay. I didn’t receive any backlash for the Women’s Health essay or anything that I wrote on my blog in the beginning.

People were really supportive and I got a lot of incredible messages from strangers. I got hundreds of thousands of messages. But, I didn’t receive any negative criticism. There were some mean comments but, overall, it was really kind.

And I was expecting backlash. I was expecting to get either conservative or religious backlash to what I was writing about. But what I learned, as time went on, was that what got me backlash was as soon as I started to talk about feminism and slut-shaming.

I did an interview with the What’s Underneath Project in September of last year and, I talked about slut shaming, sexual double standards, feminism, and abusive relationships. And that was when I started to see an organized, scary backlash from largely conservative groups. Well, conservative, but alt-conservative. What we now know as the Alt-Right; they’re like weird, fringey, 4chan, Reddit thread asshole Internet people.

They were lashing out against the fact that I was addressing feminism, gender issues, and sexuality. And herpes was what they knew me for, but it was because I was talking about politics, really. Sexual and gender politics. And that’s what I’ve seen ever since.

In addition to serving a larger purpose in STI destigmatization efforts, do you find your writing to be therapeutic at all for you?

Ella: Absolutely. When you go through something traumatic, whether it’s getting a scary diagnosis, or being in an unhealthy relationship, or whatever else, a lot of the pain comes from being isolated. Your impulse when you get diagnosed with herpes is to not tell anyone because you don’t want to be judged for it. And I was pretty open with my friends, family, and obviously my past and present romantic partners, but I still struggled with shame.

It wasn’t until I started to write about it online and share those experiences that I started to feel that last residual guilt and shame go away, because I wasn’t hiding it anymore.

Freshman Ella at an #IStandWithPlannedParenthood rally in Exley.

Freshman Ella at an #IStandWithPlannedParenthood rally in Exley.

I also, by virtue of writing about these things publicly, began to meet other people who have herpes. I also began to learn, in my life, who had had herpes and just never told me. Suddenly, because I had gone first and started to talk about this, I met so many other people with the same experience. And, when you’re going through something hard, the one thing you want more than anything else is somebody else who can say ‘Oh, I totally get that, this is what I’ve been through, this is how it went for me.’

It’s been therapeutic in the sense that it’s given me the opportunity to own my experiences. I’m also just a writer by nature. I process things by putting them into words. That’s what I’ve always needed to do with things I’m struggling with; just hammer them out in a Word document.

It’s definitely therapeutic and sometimes self-serving in a hopefully forgivable way.

You were the editor of Unlocked during your time at Wes. Has sex-positive writing, or sex-positive media in general, influenced a lot of your activism?

Ella: Yeah, it has. It’s funny. I think I was kind of a terrible editor of Unlocked because I didn’t know how to manage people. Looking back, I wish I could do that over. But, it was definitely an amazing experience. Because I ran Unlocked, and also because I wrote my senior thesis about feminist erotica, I’ve always been comfortable talking about sex more generally.

I was always that person at Wesleyan who you went to when some weird sex thing had happened, or when you were insecure about something, or when you didn’t know how to text someone who you had just hooked up with. So, I was everybody’s go-to person for weird sex advice.

And then this is my peak Wesleyan photo, with my editor and bestie Gabe Rosenberg.

And then this is my peak Wesleyan photo, with my editor and bestie Gabe Rosenberg ’16.

And, as a result, when I started to go through stuff myself when I got diagnosed, it was actually much easier for me than it was for most people to start talking about it and to start writing about it. And, because I had already been writing about sexuality and been writing erotica, I was never scared to put into words the weird, embarrassing parts about having herpes. That’s something I already knew how to do from other topics in the sex world.

I think I was uniquely prepared to become the person that I am and to do the work that I’m doing because I had already been writing and talking about uncomfortable sex things. I had already gotten over the worry that other people would judge me for writing about sex.

Unlocked and Wesleyan played a huge role in my life and in the work that I’m doing now.

Do you think Wes students and the administration could have done more to destigmatize STIs while you were here?

Ella: I think that everyone can do more. I think that every school can do more. I will say that Wesleyan is in the best position to take on STI stigma, out of any university that I know. I don’t begrudge Wesleyan for not being better because, this is only a conversation that is just starting now. I don’t shake my fist at Wesleyan or the administration.

I will also say that the health care that I got at Wesleyan was phenomenal. When I was diagnosed at the Davison Health Center, all of the nurse practitioners who diagnosed me were incredibly kind and non-judgmental and had information and held my hand when I was asking questions. Wesleyan was the best place I could have gotten diagnosed.

I’ve heard such horror stories from people who have been diagnosed at other colleges, and it just makes me so grateful to Wesleyan. In terms of the student body, Wesleyan has been so supportive of the work that I do now. Wesleyan students think it’s amazing and are really kind and get really excited when I’m walking around campus visiting friends. Wesleyan is actually pretty great about this and has responded to the conversation pretty well.

I will say, I think the administration has no idea what to do with me, because I’ve become this weird celebrity alumni online and I don’t think that any Wesleyan administrator has ever acknowledged that this is happening. Like, I’m on the Washington Post and I gave a TEDx talk and it’s been really funny to see the administration be like ‘Oh, shit. She’s like actually kind of a classic Wesleyan student.’ I’m weird and provocative and doing real political work that’s making the world better, if I can say so myself.

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I’m a terrible alumni.

But, I love Wesleyan so much, and I think it’s perfectly poised to make STI stigma a thing of the past. I would love it if more comprehensive STI testing became available, but I know that any sort of health insurance and medical treatment is really complicated. But, in terms of the social attitude on campus, I think that Wesleyan is one of the good ones when it comes to topics like this.

Are there 2 or 3 specific things that students who are at Wesleyan right now could do or could think about to help destigmatize STIs?

Ella: I do think that normalization and more access to STI testing would be amazing. I know there are WesWell campaigns that talk about STI testing. Providing scripts for people to talk about STI testing with their partners would be amazing.

One thing I noticed, after I got diagnosed was that a lot of the campaigns on campus center around ‘just get tested.’ And that’s really not the right thing to say. Getting tested should not be the bare minimum. It should be ‘Get tested and know your results. Get tested and talk about it with your partners.’

Because, when you say ‘just get tested,’ it comes with a silent reassurance like ‘And then you’ll know you’re negative.’ But most people aren’t negative. They come back positive. So, reframing that conversation and making access to testing more available are really important first steps.

Wesleyan has this very bizarre sexual openness, which is great. There is a lot of acceptance of queer identity and hookup culture, as fraught as it is, especially as conversations about campus rape are expanding. But, I dream of a world where people ask their partner on the walk back to the dorm ‘What protection do you want to use and what was your last test?’ Making conversations like that more normal may be a pipe dream, but I don’t think it is. It’s super doable.

I know that when I was on campus, when I had been diagnosed, and still wanted to hook up with people, I was walking back to a friend’s dorm and we had been making out at a party. I was like ‘Just so you know, I have genital herpes. We should use condoms. The risk is pretty small, but it’s there. Are you okay with that?’ And he was like ‘Yeah, I don’t give a fuck.’

Making conversations like that more normal and less scary is really easy and makes a huge difference.

If you could say a few things to your college self, knowing what you know now, what would you say?

Ella: Oh my God. I’ve been thinking about this a lot with everyone going back to school. I think I would say that everyone has herpes, first of all. Getting an STI in college is very likely to happen. Most of your friends have or will get herpes. They probably won’t tell you about it, but it’s true.

I wouldn’t necessarily tell myself to do anything differently because I don’t think I did anything regrettable, but have faith in yourself and the fact that college is the time to figure out who you are and to fuck up and experiment.

If you love yourself, and if you take care of yourself in whatever way makes sense, you’re gonna be fine. It’s great! Go have fun! Wesleyan’s great!

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Read more by Ella here.