Writing by Haylee Penfold // photograph by Tatiana Saavedra
Jenny is a 24-year-old with a passion for sexual health and pleasure. Working as a holistic pleasure coach, Jenny guides and empowers women to reconnect with their own pleasure, guiding them through body acceptance, healing sexual traumas and working through diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections.
Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are infections that can be passed from one person to another typically through sexual activity. The way STIs present themselves varies depending on the STI, as well as the individual. What a lot of people don’t know is many STIs present themselves asymptomatically, meaning there are no symptoms or some so mild they go unnoticed. Even when no symptoms are present, STIs can still be passed on to your sexual partners which is why regular STI testing is important. Statistics showing that one in eight sexually active Australians has genital herpes, meaning the stigma surrounding this topic of conversation needs to be faced to help this large population suffering in silence.
Breaking the stigma surrounding STIs begins with the first step of confronting your own stigma and beliefs surrounding the topic. There is no shame in identifying internalized stigma, we often don’t face this until we are diagnosed or have someone close to us diagnosed. While it’s most often not our fault how our internalised stigma is formed, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on the topic and dismantle the beliefs we once had surrounding STIs. Become more aware of the language you use surrounding STIs, someone without an STI is not “cleaner” than those with. Have the conversation surrounding status even when you don’t have an STI yourself as this can improve your ability to have safer sex, and can help make the conversation surrounding the topic easier to bring up.
The impact an STI has on your sex life Jenny says, “can be positive or negative, depending on what you make of it”. When Jenny was first diagnosed with HSV1 (Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1) in 2015 she was devastated. The lack of education surrounding STIs made her diagnosis feel like the end of the world, that no one would love her with her infection. This plunged Jenny into a deep depression, she faced a lot of shame from her doctor and roommates and rumours began to spread about her sexual activity.
As Jenny began to learn more and more about herpes, she realized that it isn’t as bad as she first thought. Soon after her diagnosis she was back having sex (after disclosing her status to her sexual partners). It wasn’t that easy though, she still experienced internalized stigma, and eventually withdrew from sexual activity altogether because she was afraid of rejection or being treated differently.
The way herpes works is that outbreaks occur, where the individual experiences blisters or other symptoms. In May of 2020, Jenny experienced a bad outbreak and the first she could remember since being diagnosed. All the internalized stigma she had buried came flooding back to the surface and she had realised she couldn’t keep ignoring it all. What helped this time around was she had support and was in a better place mentally to work through the stigma and pain she had held onto the past 5 years. Jenny re-educated herself, cried, told people her story with herpes, spoke her shames and beliefs she had about herself and herpes, and was met with absolute love and acceptance.
“Herpes is something I have, just like I have hair or bloating. It doesn’t affect my value as a human or my self-worth, and it barely affects my life.”
The advice Jenny has for those living with an STI is to find spaces where you feel supported, whether it’s in person or online. Find educational resources that can help you let go of your stigma and validate your experience. Jenny’s favourites are @sexelducation, Positively Positive Podcast and @positive_results_us. Give yourself time and space to feel the depths of your emotions and find self-acceptance. Remind yourself that you are worthy and having an STI doesn’t change anything about you, your worth, or what you deserve. You are worthy of experiencing all types of pleasure, including self-pleasure! Don’t allow anyone to treat you like you are less than and don’t settle.
Practicing safe sex with an STI can be nerve-wracking. With certain STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, you and your partner(s) want to complete the treatment before having sex again. With other STIs (like herpes) you can still have sex again but just have to be aware of some factors. During outbreaks, the risk of transmission is higher than when you don’t have symptoms which is something to consider. However, generally it is best to avoid sex during outbreaks. While herpes can’t be cured, there are treatments that can help symptoms and the risk of passing it on so speak to your healthcare provider if you have any questions.
It is your responsibility to talk with your partner(s) beforehand and discuss the risks. There is no one perfect way to disclose your diagnosis – you do you and remember, your potential sexual partners reaction reflects on them, not you. Disclosure gets easier with practice; with more self-acceptance and education this process will become more comfortable. In Jenny’s experience being open with her friends and people she trusted most made communicating her diagnosis easier in general. Her advice on disclosing to sexual partners is to be the one in control of the conversation, for you to initiate the STI conversation. Ask them about their most recent STI test, what they were tested for and what the results were. This makes it easy to identify if they have been tested and if they have had sexual partners since getting tested. From that you can be open about your own status in a more neutral way. It is important to educate your potential partners on your diagnosis and the risks involved. Be understanding if they have any questions or uncertainties.
And what about some advice for those responding as a sexual partner to someone disclosing their status? Jenny’s advice is to listen to them without interrupting and when you do respond be mindful of the language you use. Ask questions. It’s common for people to jump into the programmed negative reactions society has taught us in regards to STIs without realizing that we don’t really know much about it. Be cautious and aware of your internalized stigma, ask nonjudgmental questions to learn more without implying shame or blame for their status (without overwhelming them). It’s okay to be open about being uneducated on the topic because the reality is, the majority of us are. Make sure to take the necessary steps to educate yourself, rather than putting the burden on the other individual. Recognise your partner’s vulnerability for opening up as it can be a really hard thing to do, share your own status and experience with STIs, even if you are negative or have none. Assure them that they are worthy, and that your view on them is not altered. Most importantly, ask them what the best way to support them is, and inform them how you are feeling about moving forward sexually.
You can find Jenny at @courtesanawaken on Instagram.