Last semester, I was sitting at work eating lunch and two coworkers, male and female, sat down with me. As I sat there, one asked if we’d heard of a sophomore girl who was rumored to have herpes. I kept silent.
The female coworker seemed shocked and the male encouraged her on with statements like “oh yeah” and “I know, can you believe it?” The two talked back and forth for what seemed like fifteen minutes about this sophomore girl. “She must really sleep around,” they said. “She must have deserved it,” they said. “Her roommates are scared they’ll get it,” they said. “It’s probably all over their apartment – on the couch, on the chairs, in classrooms,” they said. Just the other day I was sitting at work, a place where I have grown to love and spend much time beyond my responsibilities, and I felt embarrassed and belittled. I felt this way because I have herpes. And aside from the shame and disgust that I initially felt towards myself, I had never felt so dirty.
I won’t indulge you in explaining how absurd it was that my coworkers could be so ignorant to think the disease is that contagious. I will however reveal a truth to you. It doesn’t take sleeping around. It doesn’t take being a “slut” or a “whore.” One does not ever deserve a disease. In my experience, one can simply contract the STD by deciding to have sex for the first time, falling in love (in which ever order), and not having the full respect or disclosure of her partner. I’ve not had an outbreak since the first time my ex boyfriend gave it to me, but it’s something that I have to live with now for the rest of my life. Sexually transmitted diseases seem to be one of those fun little responsibilities that become “women’s problems.” It goes inside this annoying little box that also holds trips to the gynecologist, finding access to contraceptives and clinics, and even body grooming. We bring these responsibilities into the bedroom because society has programmed us, even instructed us, that we must handle it. When I asked if my ex was clean and safe the first time we had sex, it’s clear he interpreted my question like a 2 year old, because the boy had never been tested once in his life. I was his fourth sexual partner. It was my first time having sex and I’d frequented the gynecologist and taken birth control for years at that point. He would get defensive and say things like “well jeez, you know it’s not my fault no one ever made me go.” Made him? Apparently unless men are forced to go, it’s not their problem.
I want to point out that not one time in the gossiping between my coworkers, was the male party brought up, less criticized. Where was the guy in the story? Where is the man in every story we hear or spread? Why are women left with all the blame and scrutiny? This semester with ShoutOut I want to explore issues and problems such as this. I want to talk about my ex-boyfriend and my experiences with him. The experiences of one woman are never unique and I want to share my stories to reach out, connect with and learn from others. As women, we have power in our voices. I am slowly coming into mine.