How I Enjoyed Sex Again After My Herpes Diagnosis
After Emily Depasse received a herpes diagnosis in 2015, she felt unloveable and hopeless about her future. Over time she realized that the STI wasn't a life sentence—and she was worthy of pleasure.
Illustration by Camilla Ru
My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?
I went to a Catholic high school, and the sex education there was abstinence-only. Marriage was seen as something sacred, and sex was only for procreation. When I went to college I had my first experience with sex education. It was all very clinical, run of the mill sex education, where you learn about contraceptives, IUDs, and how you prevent yourself from getting STIs (sexually transmitted infections).
Before I contracted herpes, I didn’t realize that I was carrying STI stigma around with me. I felt that people who contracted STIs were dirty or diseased and didn’t take proper precautions sexually. The stigma is debilitating, and it’s something I had to unlearn myself. I think it comes from the media: Characters like Coach Carr from Mean Girls is a great example, or The Hangover, which has jokes about herpes. There’s never anything in the media that says, "One day you may get an STI, and it’s actually really common, and you’ll still be worthy of pleasure.” I never got that message. No-one ever told me I could still have a loving relationship, or even a casual relationship, with someone after I got diagnosed.
I contracted herpes in 2015. I had consensual sex with someone I’d know for a while, and about two weeks later I ended up with excruciating pain in my vulva region. The doctor took a swab to test the legion, and it was extremely painful. I remember crying and a nurse looking at me with pity in her eyes. They did a test and it came back positive for herpes.
From that moment on, I felt completely unloved, betrayed, disgusting, and hopeless about my future. My dad was with me at the doctor’s office when I was diagnosed. I remember crying as we left and repeating over and over again, “Who will love me now I have this?” I didn’t want to blame my partner for giving me herpes, because we hadn’t talked about contraception. So that was another wakeup call for me, in terms of how I communicate around sex with other people. The thing I always say about being diagnosed with any STI is that it forces you to have the health conversations you should have been having with your sexual partners, but probably weren't having.
Herpes is a skin infection that comes in two strains. There’s HSV1 and HSV2. HSV2 typically revolves around the genitals and is transmitted there, and HSV1 is generally known as oral herpes, and can be seen when you get cold sores. When it comes to have sex, you can still shed asymptomatically even if you don’t have an outbreak. It’s important that you take precautions if you’re engaging in sexual activity with someone who doesn’t have herpes. Some people go on suppressive therapy when they’re in relationships [which reduces your likelihood to have a herpes outbreak]. Condoms—both internal, and external—are also great, but as herpes is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, you can get it from grinding on someone’s genitals if you have an outbreak, so condoms won’t necessarily prevent you catching it.
After my diagnosis, I felt like I didn’t know who I was. when I looked in the mirror. I’d just graduated from college; I had this great internship, but I just lost myself. It was really hard telling the person I’d contracted herpes from about the diagnosis. I tried to meet up with him to tell him in person, but he kept telling me that he was too busy, so in the end I had to tell him via text. That was the beginning of the end. We carried on having sex afterwards, but I wouldn’t call the sex acceptable or fulfilling. I think I was just trying to make myself feel like I was still worthy, and deep down I wanted him to be there for me. He was someone I’d felt a real connection with when we first met, and I liked a lot.
He ended up breaking up with me via Snapchat messenger. That experience set me on my own journey of self-acceptance and self-love. I’m someone who believes that everything happens for a reason—even if it was painful at the time. I took baby steps back into exploring my sexuality after that relationship ended. Masturbation is a great reintroduction into sexual pleasure after an STI diagnosis, because it creates a bit of distance between yourself and your body, whilst allowing you to receive pleasure.
My current boyfriend is someone I knew from college. I’d been open about my herpes status online, so all my Facebook friends knew. We started talking and flirting online, and then we went to a house party together and hooked up. We didn’t actually have sex that first time after the party, but we messed around a bit, and it was so simple. He didn’t think the herpes was a big deal—he just asked me how he should protect himself, and didn’t make a thing out of it. That was so important to me. His acceptance played a really pivotal role in rekindling my sexual self. The first time we ever had sex, it wasn’t anything extravagant. It was in his bedroom, and we used a condom, and it was nice, and gentle, and soft. It was a reintroduction to sex. I felt worthy of pleasure again.
It has been a long journey for me to get to the point where I am comfortable talking about my herpes diagnosis, and advocating on behalf of others to erode STI stigma. After I was first diagnosed, I spent hours on the internet. The internet can be your best friend, and your worst enemy! I came across the work of herpes activist Ella Dawson, and I admired her honesty and commitment to tackling stigma. At that point in my life, I was deciding that I wanted to train as a sex therapist, so I thought, You know what? I’m tired of keeping this darkness inside me. I want to take this darkness public.
I’ve since learned that vulnerability creates change. By being vulnerable, and honest, you can help other people to make positive changes in their lives. So that’s how I came to publicly disclose my herpes status, and work with other activists to educate the public about the reality of life with an STI. I never thought this would be my life’s work; I just wanted to give people access to the resources that I never had, when I first got my diagnosis. I just wanted to change one person’s life. But now it’s become my life’s work. I get messages every day from people saying, “Thank you for being there.”