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Home Sexual Health Sexual Health The Challenger: An Interview with Jenelle Marie of The STD Project

The Challenger: An Interview with Jenelle Marie of The STD Project

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Ah, the assumptions we have to challenge. “Now, it’s much harder to realize my goals. How will I date and find love? I must be broken, right? I mean, this only happens to other people!”

Jenelle Marie’s emotions ran the gamut following her herpes diagnosis, including enough doubt about her self-worth that she worried not only about her love life, but her career aspirations, too.

She got over it.

After finding personal and professional success in the 14 years since her diagnosis, she founded The STD Project specifically to promote healthy sexuality and reduce stigma related to sexually transmitted infections (STI). Beyond an extensive network of resources and referrals, The STD Project seeks to move beyond the culture wars over s-e-x and infections with a simple message: heal, because you’re worth it.

Read her story, and feel free to share your own at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Feelings of shame and stigma are common following diagnosis with herpes, but fortunately people usually report feeling much better after a few months. Still, it can be tough at first. For those coping with a recent diagnosis – and for those who do have trouble adjusting over the long term- what advice do you offer?
Time heals all wounds? I know; that’s such a cliché. While there’s truth to that statement, I don’t think it really does much good for anyone. In the 14 years I’ve been living with genital herpes, sure, time has most certainly helped me form a new perspective but not because I knew that ‘one day’ I’d feel better about myself. There are a couple of things that are helpful to remember, no matter how long ago one was diagnosed.

First, know that you’re not alone. I think most people have some awareness of this because of the statistics readily available online now, but I didn’t know how true this is I was until I started talking about my experiences openly this year – 14 years later. After ‘coming out’ with my website and ultimately, my genital herpes, many friends whom I had known for years approached me privately with their stories. Even though I knew the stigma surrounding STIs was horribly inaccurate, I still wasn’t aware just how close to home genital herpes and other STIs were. I think, because of the intense pain I experienced during the first few years, I still harbored a shadow of a doubt that STIs didn’t really happen to all people. While I’m certainly not advocating everyone go around proclaiming their STI status, continually reminding oneself that many others are going through something similar– almost certainly including people close to you- can be reassuring.

My next piece of advice is far more important than knowing time will help to change your perspective or knowing you’re not alone. Simply, whatever you do, DO NOT let an STI stop you from doing the things you originally planned to (pursue your dreams!) before the diagnosis. I don’t know how to emphasize this enough and I sincerely wish the readers could hear me say this out loud.

For some time after contracting genital herpes, I believed I could not date specific men; I could never achieve my dreams of performing on Broadway. I thought I was a loser. Eventually that turned around: I auditioned for American Idol, had relationships with good-looking and successful men, and finished two degrees. Doing those things led me to realize the assumptions people make STIs and who has them are wrong. I learned I am awesome and capable of leading a rich, diverse, fulfilling, and successful life and my STI has nothing to do with it – that is, as long as I don’t allow it to.

Yes, some things will be a little more confusing initially as a result of having genital herpes (namely, relationships), but this won’t stop a rewarding and healthy relationship from happening.

Talk about how your own stereotypes were challenged. How have you changed?
Well, I like to think I have become a much more open-minded individual. Anyone can contract genital herpes – STIs don’t discriminate like we do or put people into categorized boxes. Moreover, as I’ve been navigating through the launch of The STD Project, it’s become clear to me that everyone is hurting. People are burdened by any number of things, and while those things might not be identical in nature, what brings us together is the knowledge that we all have had painful experiences, we all have physical afflictions, and everyone is quite the same in their desire to be understood, accepted, and loved.

One thing I noticed in reading your bio is you mention how the HSV diagnosis has not kept you from accomplishing (or having) anything you really wanted, especially relationships. This is perhaps the single most common topic people raise to us: how do I date or tell someone? I think your story would offer a great deal of reassurance.

How did you get beyond the doubt with approaching and talking with partners?
I learned how to approach partners successfully by trial and error – emphasis on the error. I can’t say that I have ever fully gotten beyond the doubt. Rather, I knew I should tell someone I have genital herpes because they would be put at risk regardless of safer-sex methods used and I couldn’t live with the guilt of withholding my status.

I’ve found success in having this conversation when I’ve worked to establish a relationship prior to engaging in physical activities. All of the men I’ve had ‘the talk’ with have chosen to continue dating me. They’ve all made different choices as to preferred protection methods, but none have decided to end the relationship after I’ve disclosed having genital herpes.

I know this isn’t always the case for everyone, so I think it’s important to remember that people get rejected for all kinds of reasons. Generally, one never gets to know why they have been ‘dumped.’ If someone ends the relationship after a conversation about herpes occurs it’s usually because the individual was not ready to take a risk, and the relationship had not yet progressed to that level. It also means they are not choosing to stop dating you because you are ugly, stupid, fat, smelly, or [insert random self-conscious worry]. Simply, they are not ready to take a risk.

I’m a strong believer that the status of a relationship dictates whether or not someone will accept an STI and its inherent risk to their health. If the relationship is not beyond initial attraction and physical interest, generally people choose to negate their risk by abstaining from sex until the relationship has developed further or by ending things completely. It’s much less personal than you think. This doesn’t really make the rejection less painful, of course; I just think it helps to understand the mechanics.

Was talking with partners more or less difficult than you thought?
Neither, actually. It was just as difficult as I imagined – it’s a tough conversation to have no matter what… Telling a significant other I have genital herpes gets a little easier every time I do it, but the anxiety I have surrounding the fear of rejection is nearly the same as it was at 17 – the first time I told someone. What was completely different than I anticipated was the reactions – anywhere from, ‘You mean, that’s all you had to tell me?’ to ‘Well, that doesn’t change how I feel about you or who you are; it just means we have to be more careful if we have sex, right?’

What do you offer through The STD Project?
At The STD Project one can find stories people submit about coping with STIs, testing center locations, information about treatment options, STI forums, blogs, hotlines, and so much more.

I’m always open to suggestions as well. I’m learning and growing through this and I believe we learn and grow best as a team supporting one another!

 

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