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Here's What This 23-Year-Old Learned From Talking About Her Herpes

"My herpes wasn’t caused by reckless behavior. I was behaving just like any normal college student and lost a lottery that’s very easy to lose."

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Ella Dawson is a 23-year-old living in Brooklyn, New York. Two years ago, she was a college student majoring in gender and sexuality studies and working as an advocate for better sex education when she was diagnosed with genital herpes.

Andrew C Nelson / Via Ella Dawson

Dawson, now a social media assistant at TED.com, first went public with her story on WomensHealthMag.com in April. Since then, she's kept telling her story, even starring in StyleLikeU's "What's Underneath" web series, where she stripped to her underwear while discussing how to strip the STI stigma.

Her hope, she says, is to start an open conversation about the realities of life with herpes so that others know they're definitely not alone.

Dawson was diagnosed with genital herpes in her junior year at Wesleyan University, just a few days before her 21st birthday.

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After finding a cluster of painful red bumps near her labia, Dawson visited the campus clinic. She says the doctor immediately knew it was an outbreak of genital herpes, and blood tests later confirmed a diagnosis of herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). HSV-1 is mainly transmitted via oral-to-oral contact and typically causes ulcers or cold sores around the mouth. However, an increasing number of genital herpes cases are caused by HSV-1 from sexual contact, according to the CDC.

"Most people spend their 21st birthday getting blacked out at a bar," Dawson tells BuzzFeed Life in an interview. "I was at home on so much Valtrex and Tylenol that I passed out by 11 p.m."

As a safe sex advocate and avid condom user, Dawson was completely shocked by the diagnosis.

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"I couldn't put together how I got herpes," she says. "I'm an activist for better sexual health education, I practiced safe sex with my partners and used condoms — it was devastating."

Approximately 1 in 6 adults in the U.S. have genital herpes, and most of those people don’t know they have it, according to the CDC. Plus, condoms are not 100% effective at preventing herpes since they don't cover the entire genital area. Another shocker: Routine screening for herpes is not recommended unless you have symptoms or suspect you've been exposed (for more info on STI testing, check out our guide to getting tested).

After learning she was positive, Dawson says she struggled with extreme feelings of isolation and guilt.

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She first felt that the diagnosis was a punishment for the poor decisions she had made in college, Dawson says. "It took me a while to realize herpes is extraordinarily common and that it shouldn't be associated with moral judgement or a reflection of someone's character," she says.

"My herpes wasn't caused by reckless behavior. I was behaving just like any normal college student and lost a lottery that's very easy to lose."

Calling her exes, however, was a surprisingly positive experience.

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"It was so terrifying," Dawson says. "The first person I told was my high school sweetheart — I had to leave a voicemail saying I had genital herpes because we weren't even speaking after a terrible breakup. He called me back right away."

Dawson says she was shocked when he was immediately supportive and concerned about her health. "Now we're best friends again as a result — it was a weird blessing, I guess." Even the previous hookups she met for "a very awkward cup of coffee" were very nice and understanding, she said.

"Nobody wants to call their exes about an STD — but it's the right thing to do, and really a sign of respect."

Sure, dating with genital herpes isn't super easy either, Dawson explained. But when is dating ever not complicated?

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Dawson says that when she meets someone, she likes to get her status out of the way pretty early so they're both on the same page and comfortable. "I had been talking to this guy on Tinder for a while, and when it came time to tell him, he was like, ‘Oh, I know, I googled you, I thought your article was awesome and it’s not a big deal at all," she said. "I won't even say 'there's hope' for people who have herpes because that's trite — it's a given that you'll find someone amazing out there."

Dawson says she feels even more safe and mindful of her sexual health now that she knows her status. "People expect that this is closing doors for me, but it's actually making dating a lot more straightforward and easy."

It wasn't until she actually opened up about her diagnosis through writing that Dawson says she truly made peace with it.

Andrew C Nelson / Via Ella Dawson

She now runs her own blog about her experience with herpes. After she came forward, people suddenly began reaching out for advice, even friends she never knew were positive. "It was like someone turned on a light and I realized I wasn’t alone.

"Herpes has become a huge part of my identity because I chose to let it define me. I wanted people to see herpes as something that happens to friends, loved ones, and co-workers — not a punchline."

Now her goal is to start a positive, open conversation for others who are still struggling with their diagnosis.

Andrew C Nelson / Via Ella Dawson

"I could only be so open because I'm hugely privileged and live in a progressive environment," she says. Dawson notes that for many people living with genital herpes, it may not be safe to speak up about their diagnosis, so they suffer in silence. "I hope I can help spotlight diverse voices from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds because such a slim part of my experience relates to theirs," she says.

"People are so ready to talk about this," Dawson says. "I figured I'd be fighting to get people to have an honest conversation, but instead I've received overwhelming support because herpes affects so many people." Dawson says her goal from the beginning has been to write for the person she was two years ago, when she was first diagnosed.

"The most amazing thing that could happen is to make someone feel less terrified and alone."

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