Sluts, Herpes, and Hillary Clinton

“I’m a slut, and I have herpes. I still am a person who deserves respect,” blogger Ella Dawson tweeted as part of her campaign to remove the “cultural stigma” surrounding sexually transmitted diseases. The Wesleyan grad gained notoriety and celebrity online after writing an article in Women’s Health titled “Why I Love Telling People I Have Herpes.” A follow-up article at Medium defended her position.

Some -- like Hillary Clinton -- praised Dawson for being “brave and insightful,” while others condemned her for being “stupid.”

In the words of the ever-candid Dr. House:

Yesterday’s sluts are today’s empowered women. Today’s sluts are celebrities. If that isn’t progress ...

Hillary Clinton certainly agrees with House. She even sent Dawson a thank you note praising her for speaking out against the “stigma” and for standing up to her critics:

Dawson was thrilled to receive the letter, of course, because it elevated, at least in the minds of some, her campaign to make contracting oozing sores on your genitalia “cool.”

In other words, and like other “sex-positive” feminists and liberals who want to legitimize every social deviancy while stigmatizing anyone who disagrees with them, the 24-year-old Dawson is using social media platforms and a hashtag campaign (#ShoutYourStatus) to justify her behavior and to ease her feelings of guilt.

Instead of simply making the common-sense case for respecting people who are hurting and not stigmatizing them because they made a mistake -- you know, the Golden Rule -- Dawson goes much further.

She denies the moral context of how an STD is contracted. She refuses to take responsibility for her bad behavior. She perpetuates misinformation about the seriousness of the disease.

And, she plays the victim. Isn’t feminism glorious?

Writes Dawson:

I wasn’t the sort of person STDs happened to. I was a Planned Parenthood volunteer, a sexuality studies major, and everyone’s go-to friend when they had questions about losing their virginity. How could I have caught something when I had always been so careful?

First of all, being a feminist isn’t a full-body condom. Second, there is no such thing as 100-percent certified safe sex when you’re doing it with strangers or just having casual sex with multiple partners.

How can anyone be so surprised when a risky game of sex roulette ends badly?

After discovering that she had contracted herpes, Dawson found solace in the internet, scouring websites for information about the disease. She says she was surprised to learn that herpes is a lot more common than she thought, which oddly reassured her (misery loves company).

Dawson also discovered a “powerful and invisible stigma associated with sexually transmitted diseases” that keeps people from “chatting about herpes the way they discuss allergies.”

Yes, she did make that comparison. Does she not realize that herpes, unlike allergies, is contagious?

That’s why potential sex partners get that wide-eyed look on their faces when they find out you have it -- it’s not judgment, it’s legit fear. Since when is simply not wanting to get a lifelong infection a form of stigma?

There’s another reason people don’t want to talk about herpes the way they discuss allergies: it’s a disease contracted while having sex. There’s a degree of privacy when discussing it that isn’t there with peanut butter allergies.

Dawson also, nonsensically, believes that contracting herpes has nothing to do with her behavior.

She writes:

On a logical level. I knew that getting herpes had nothing to do with my actions and didn't say anything about my character.

On a logical level? Really? She repeats this brilliant display of logic in a TED Talk:

An STI, especially herpes, is not a reflection of your character or a consequence of a bad decision.

Neither is it, as she writes at Medium, “a consequence of personal choices.”

Sorry to break this to you, but an STD is the direct result of a personal choice. And if you’re a slut -- as she claims -- that is, by definition, a reflection of your character.

Fact: if she had never had casual sex, she would have never contracted genital herpes.

Instead of taking responsibility for her own bad choices, Dawson wants to throw logic -- and morality -- to the wind and justify her behavior by recasting the entire narrative about STDs into something positive: It’s just something that magically happens to you. You’re a passive victim, and there’s nothing you could have done to stop it. So you’re not guilty of anything. And most of all, you don’t have to feel ashamed.

This might come as a shock to Dawson and other moral relativists, but shame isn’t always a bad thing.

The personal shame you feel when you’ve done something wrong is healthy, because it leads you (or should) to conviction that will help you change your behavior.

Because society has become so sexualized, of course, most don’t feel that conviction until something negative happens as a result -- like blisters on your genitals that keep coming back.

So maybe think of STDs as a life lesson that you need to learn from.

When you contract an STD like herpes, not only is your own health compromised, but the health of all future partners is put at risk (that’s how she got it). You should come to the realization that casual sex isn’t so casual anymore -- it never was.

Because you can't simply "destigmatize" dangerous behavior. Casual sex had been properly defined all along -- it’s merely another game of roulette. And that realization is bound to make anyone with a conscience feel bad.

This personal shame is not something that should define one’s entire character, and through forgiveness of one’s self, that shame should be released. No one should live under shame forever. But getting an STD is reflective of a bad decision, one that has life-changing consequences.

Dawson doesn’t seem to have learned her lesson. She simply doesn’t want to confront that personal shame, or the morality that goes with it. She just wants it gone, somehow. By “chatting” about it, by connecting with everyone else who has herpes as if it’s a club, by distastefully pretending it's just like being born with a dangerous allergies, and by becoming an Internet celebrity for having herpes, the shame disappears, replaced by celebration and pride. STDs become something good, not bad. (I wonder if Dawson works at the Ministry of Truth.) And instead of learning from her mistake of engaging in behavior that always comes with risk, Dawson continues it.

I’m not saying she or anyone else with herpes should become celibate -- if someone wants to risk having sex with an infected partner, that’s their choice. But for individuals and society as a whole to ignore the behavior that led to the disease will only perpetuate the problem. Dawson doesn’t seem to see this connection -- and this where her campaign gets dangerous.

She goes so far as to say herpes is “harmless,” and that’s dangerous misinformation.

In an interview with Salon, Dawson said the disease has actually made her sex life better:

Herpes is such a great way to weed out jerks. It’s like the metal detector of douchebags because if somebody is scared of something so harmless, they’re just not worth your time. I have a really high bar for the people I date. Most people have risen to it amazingly. That’s not to say I’ve only had committed relationships; I’ve had casual sex since getting diagnosed, it’s just always with the conversation of: This is a reality, how do we want to handle this? Do you want to use condoms? What are you most comfortable with? What makes sense for you? 

Herpes is not harmless.

According to the Mayo Clinic, genital herpes is highly contagious with many health risks, including brain damage, blindness or death in a newborn, bladder problems requiring a catheter, meningitis, rectal inflammation, damage to the nervous system, and an increased risk of “transmitting or contracting other STDs.”

And there’s always a risk of contracting it if you have sex with someone who has the disease, even if they’re not experiencing a breakout.

So if you’re a guy who doesn’t want to risk, say, brain damage? Dawson thinks you’re a jerk. A douchebag.

If you want to remain healthy and not get painful pustules on your lower regions? Dawson says you’re a terrible human being.

I’m sure it does make her feel bad when someone doesn’t want to have sex with her because he’s afraid of getting herpes -- but that’s not stigma. If Dawson would take responsibility for her own actions and stop playing the victim, she might understand that, and respect that other people’s decisions can’t cater to her feelings.

If anyone is being a douchebag when it comes to STDs, it’s Dawson. And anyone who praises her for being brave. There’s nothing brave about admitting you have an STD if all you’re doing is perpetuating the problem. The only people who need to know about your STD are those you are intimate with.

Telling them isn’t bravery. It’s simply the right thing to do.