In 2016, I landed my first role in sex education as a peer health advisor at a student health center. There, my work ranged from handing out safer sex supplies at campus events to facilitating open conversations about sex and sexuality. At the end of that year, I started writing about sexual wellness out of a desire to educate myself and others. What started as a one-off story about my first time attending a sex and mindfulness workshop turned into three years of researching and writing about things like kink, group sex, and the pleasure gap. Now I teach sex education to LGBTQ+ youth of color and facilitate workshops for adults, which has fueled my desire to become a sex therapist and enter a graduate program focused on social work and human sexuality.
I often go back and forth about whether I’ve earned the right to call myself a sex educator. Working in the sexuality field is exciting and important, but it can also be overwhelming because there is no one set path to becoming a sex educator. For the past few years, I had been convinced that my knowledge wasn’t valid without a certificate or degree in human sexuality. But I’ve since realized that degrees and certifications aren’t the only path to becoming an expert, in part because they aren’t always accessible and because my lived experiences as an educator are just as important as formal training.
But this past summer, just when it seemed I had finally beaten back my imposter syndrome and started leaning into my work around sexuality education, I was diagnosed with genital herpes. And I felt like a hypocrite.
“Let’s test you for herpes,” is not a phrase I was expecting to hear this July when I went into the doctor’s office for what I thought was just another annoying UTI. After my appointment, I walked away with fear and shame caused by insensitive doctors, confusion surrounding my diagnosis, an irrational feeling that I would no longer enjoy sex or find love, and fear that I would somehow disappoint people in my life for having contracted herpes.
Despite the fact that my work as a sex educator is rooted in sexual liberation and the destigmatization of STIs, I was still affected by my own internalized stigma.
I’ve always tried to be proactive about getting routine STI screenings before and after every new sexual partner, so it was pretty routine for me to slide into my primary care provider’s office and ask her to run ALL of the tests. Before I was officially diagnosed with genital herpes, also known as herpes type 2 or HSV-2, I had honestly forgotten about that STI because I’d been working at a sexual health agency that mostly prioritized HIV prevention. Plus, any general conversations around STIs seem to only focus on what doctors are likely to test patients for: chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. Despite the fact that 1 out of every 6 people ages 14 to 49 has genital herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s not as much of a focus as it should be in general conversations or in sexuality-centered spaces. (Thankfully, I now know that there are amazing sexuality professionals using their platforms to educate people on genital herpes and decrease its stigma.)
Although I talk about sexual health regularly, most of my personal insight into herpes pre-diagnosis came from what little info I recalled from the incomprehensive sex ed I had received in school, memories of kids cracking gross jokes about cold sores, and commercials for Valtrex — one of the antiviral drug options used to treat both types of herpes, which I now take daily.
I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I had gone in for UTI symptoms and unexplained bloating, yet the doctor decided to screen my blood for herpes. I thought she was being ridiculous at first. I wasn’t sexually active at the time, and I could call to mind the date of my last round of STI screening. But because I so often tell others that it’s better to be safe than sorry, I agreed to the test.
Not even a week later, my blood tested positive for the presence of HSV-2 antibodies. But I wasn’t sure what the presence of herpes antibodies meant, and a trip down the Google search rabbit-hole left me unsure of whether or not I actually had genital herpes. So my next move was to leave my doctor frantic voicemails and online messages asking her what the presence of antibodies means. I was eventually told that it meant I had been exposed to the infection, but without a positive genital swab, my doctor couldn’t make an official diagnosis. She also mentioned dating sites for STI-positive individuals, and while it’s amazing those sites exist, it wasn’t what I needed to hear at that moment.
All that was swirling around in my head was a fear that no one would want to have sex with me ever again, and that I had somehow failed as a sex educator. While I promote engaging in safer sex, I don’t always practice what I preach. I was so hard on myself because I felt like I should have known better.
About a week later, I convinced my doctor to perform a genital swab, which she wouldn’t have otherwise done if I hadn’t advocated for myself because, unless you present any symptoms, most medical providers won’t test you for herpes. After the swab, it was confirmed that I did in fact have the infection — but I felt very little empathy from the doctors involved because of comments like, “Well, you have it so it just kind of is what it is,” and another doctor’s admission that she “didn’t know that much” about herpes. None of this made the acceptance of the diagnosis any easier.
To my surprise, the first person to affirm me as a sex educator post-diagnosis was my mother.
While she didn’t know much about herpes (I had to assure her that it wasn’t a fatal diagnosis), she told me that being herpes-positive might help my platform as a sexuality professional, and she’s right. By continuing to educate myself, not just on the spread of herpes and other STIs, but on how to live a full and pleasurable life while STI-positive, I can help affirm others navigating life and sex with an STI. I spent weeks feeling like a hypocrite because I wasn’t as knowledgeable about herpes as I could have been until contracting it. But after working through those feelings and reaching a place where I feel safe enough to share my story, I no longer feel that I have to be an all-knowing sex expert who never makes mistakes. I believe any sex educator who can teach about sex in a way that is rooted in their own experiences has a greater chance of helping to liberate people from shame and sex negativity.
Even more than that, though, I learned about the need to have self-compassion upon being diagnosed with an STI. While I had so much initial fear of criticism from outside sources, the harshest criticism came from myself. I berated myself for not asking to be tested for herpes sooner, for not always using barrier methods, for not knowing who I might have contracted herpes from, and for having contracted it at all.
And on top of needing to be compassionate with myself for having herpes, I had to actively tell myself that I wasn’t a sham sex educator for having an STI or for needing more education on a specific one. Here’s the thing: Babies can be born with herpes, you can contract it from having a consistent sexual partner or multiple, and using barrier methods doesn’t always fully protect you (because genital herpes can be passed from skin to skin contact). But most importantly, having an STI is not an indicator of your worth or your work, and contracting an STI isn’t punishment for being sexually active. Yet stigma meant I still had to remind myself of that fact constantly.
If I would never have said negative things to a client or friend who is herpes-positive, why was I saying them to myself?
Every friend that I have shared my diagnosis with has offered me empathy and understanding, and while I braced for judgement, it has never come. They weren’t phased, and their questions centered my well-being — not the infection itself. While it can be instinctual to ask someone who has disclosed their STI status questions about how they got it and who they may have gotten it from, those questions are stigmatizing. When friends asked me things like “Are you okay?” and “How are you taking care of yourself?” that made all the difference in my ability to accept my status.
Fear and stigma are scarier than herpes itself. Our culture positions herpes as something that makes a person “dirty,” causing a very treatable and manageable infection to feel life-ending. Not to mention that oral and genital herpes are pit against each other, as if one is more desirable to have than the other.
I’ve had to confront my own internalized stigma and shame about genital herpes as well, but the more we all learn about sex, the more we also have to unlearn. Some positive things to come from my diagnosis are a commitment to being more informed about STI transmission and learning how important it is to advocate for myself when undergoing STI testing since medical providers often won’t test you for herpes unless you ask. I often write and teach about advocating for your own pleasure, and going through this experience has taught me the importance of teaching others to advocate for their overall health too.
Every day since receiving my diagnosis has required me to affirm myself and my work, and to remember that I’m a sexual human being — not a hypocrite for being STI-positive. In fact, as a Black femme STI-positive sex educator, it makes it that much more important for me to share my story and speak to others navigating sexual shame along with the added weight of a positive status.
My hope is that by sharing my story, I can help other STI-positive folks remember that they deserve love, pleasure, and compassion.
And while I’m working to affirm other STI-positive people, I hope that I’ll keep working on my own healing, too.