Ella Dawson was devastated when she was diagnosed with genital herpes at her campus health center a few days before her 21st birthday.
In her episode of “What’s Underneath,” Ella removes layer after layer of clothing — and shame — as she opens up about how she transitioned from feeling terrified and overwhelmed in that moment to being a confident, outspoken advocate for de-stigmatizing herpes and STIs — baring it all, both literally and metaphorically.
“My brain went into panic mode,” Dawson recalls in the video. “I felt disgusted and revolted by my own sexuality. I was thrown into a real identity crisis, but my mom and dad smacked me out of it.”
Ella’s boyfriend at the time, however, was a different story. He became emotionally abusive, calling Dawson a “whore” one minute, then begging her to stay with him the next — even though it eventually turned out that he was likely the source of her STI. Eventually, Dawson left him, and now she says she sees her herpes diagnosis as “the ultimate douche-bag detector.”
“If somebody rejects you for this,” she explains, “chances are it wouldn’t work, and you’re dodging a lot of unhappiness.
“I don’t know how you could talk about STI stigma and herpes stigma without talking about slut-shaming,” Dawson says, “because the first assumption people make when you say you have an STI is, ’Oh you must have done something to deserve it. You must have been sleeping around.’”