When you hear the term STD (sexually transmitted disease), what do you think of first? Grotesque pictures of maimed genitalia displayed on a projector during yester-year’s sex-ed class geared toward frightening you into abstinence? That scene from The Hangover where Sid says, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas… except for herpes. That sh*t will come back with you”?
Whatever first comes to your mind is not likely to include your neighbor, professor, or best friend living with an STD, having an incredible sex life, and otherwise prospering. That is, of course, unless you’re also living with an STD and you know better.
Image: Jenelle Marie, STD advocate
I am your neighbor, a professor at a community college, and am enjoying a wonderfully healthy sex life with a man who thinks the world of me and nothing of my STD. I’ve been living with genital herpes for over 14 years now; I’ve also contracted HPV, scabies, and vaginitis throughout the years. And yet not once did an STD hinder my relationships or happiness once I stopped allowing it to dictate my self worth.
At 16, when our family doctor peered at me with a lazy eye, through thick glasses, and accompanied by a partially missing ear to tell me my genital herpes outbreak was the worst case he’d ever seen, I was devastated. Embarrassment coursed through me as he handed me a prescription and sent my mother and me on our way – sans brochures, additional information, and references to resources, support groups or even a mention of the vast number of people living with an STD everywhere. I was a pariah – a leper – even the doctor was disgusted by my condition.
For years, I accepted my fate and considered myself as being punished for having been sexually active before marriage. As a high-schooler, I was called a slut or a whore and "friends" of mine forewarned men who took interest in me that I would merely infect them, hurt them, and they should steer clear entirely. I actually maintained some of those friendships for a period of time, not knowing otherwise about STDs and those who contract them, thinking myself deserving of such treatment.
A Long Overdue Paradigm Shift
It wasn’t until a few years ago I began to see myself for who I truly was: a beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful, and valuable individual who just happened to contract a long-term infection. In fact, my infection had not stopped me from obtaining two honors degrees, getting married, conquering my fear of heights by going skydiving – not once, but three times – or pursuing my dreams by auditioning for American Idol. While I’m not the next American Idol, I learned an invaluable lesson throughout that period of self-discovery: I am not deserving of poor treatment, cruel friendships, or snide remarks; the stigma placed upon those living with an STD is inaccurate, ignorant, and illogical. And I have the power to change that. We all do.
In order to change the status quo, though, one has to first understand where the misunderstandings and wrongful judgments originate. Rather than be angry at my doctor for leaving me with nothing more than a crass diagnosis or at my childhood friends for mistreating our relationship, I am choosing to delve into why those perceptions persist.
Part of the problem came from within. I didn’t challenge what little I knew about STDs, and I embraced the negative opinions for years before I was able to distinguish between the laymen’s view of STDs and the reality behind the array of people who contract them. STDs do not define one’s character; they’re merely a reflection of an experience – an experience that is as individually unique as are the people who contract the STDs themselves.
Consequently, I’m not angry or frustrated by the amount of time it took for me to finally find solace in my infection. Rather, I have a holistic appreciation for the process one undergoes when being diagnosed with any type of taboo condition (infection or otherwise). Not only have I taken great pains to find myself in a place of self-love and self-respect, I want very much for others to have an opportunity to feel the same fortitude after their diagnosis as I do now and over a far shorter time table.
Becoming an Advocate
Hence, I have become an advocate.
Due to the immense stigma behind contracting an STD, most people don’t speak openly about their experiences. However, as people, we learn best through community. Naturally, we are pack animals – we nurture our young for years beyond most other mammals and we develop complex (and hopefully, healthy) relationships with others outside of our family nucleus. It makes sense then we need others to help overcome obstacles and boundaries – in this case, contracting an STD and/or living with an STD.
So, I’m willing to tell you how horrible my experience has been at times, and how I’ve found incredible happiness, love, success, and rewarding relationships despite living with an STD all in hopes you can move through the process with much more clarity, community, and understanding than I once endured.
Join me, and I welcome you.