Ask Professor Foxy: How Do I Feel Good After Catching an STD?

This weekly Saturday column “Ask Professor Foxy” will regularly contain sexually explicit material. This material is likely not safe for work viewing. The title of the column will include the major topic of the post, so please read the topic when deciding whether or not to read the entire column.
Hello Professor Foxy,
In feminist spaces, I see a fair amount of talk about how to have safer sex, but little to none about what to do when safer sex fails; lots of discussion about how to protect yourself, but not very much about how to deal with it when you’re the one people need protecting from.
I’m a 22-year-old woman with a slightly checkered sexual past that I never had any guilt or shame about until about four months ago, when I was diagnosed with genital herpes. I contracted it through a one night stand and I am having some intense issues with that, given that all the herpes support that I’ve found around the internet is trying really hard to reinforce this idea that “not everyone contracts herpes through sleeping around!” well, I did. And now I’m suffering the consequences. I don’t even have the consolation of slut-shaming self-righteousness. I can’t get this idea that I’m being punished out of my head. I went from sex-positive queer to a self-hating emotional wreck in the course of a day.
Where do I go from here? I cry all the time and I feel like miserable shit constantly. Nothing seems to matter anymore. I am obviously not in any state to be sleeping with anyone, but what’s more, I often can’t even look at or touch my own body without flipping out. Showering and getting dressed often set off tears for me because I have to touch myself down there. I used to think I was cute but I hate myself for thinking that now (because where did cute get me? Diseased.). Even in totally non-sexual situations, being touched or being expected to be present in my body feels grotesque and painful. I feel like a scare tactic, a cautionary tale, a non-person. Mostly I just want to be able to not hate myself, to not cry all the time, and to be able to fully inhabit my body instead of feeling divorced from it.
I am not asking for advice on how to find partners, nor reassurance that it will eventually happen… because frankly, that seems completely irrelevant and useless to me now. I am asking for advice on how to come to terms with my own body.
Thank you.
Anonymous
PS. I don’t have the time or money for therapy. I especially don’t have the time or emotional energy to seek out a queer-positive, anti-racist, non-judgmental therapist. Please respect that and don’t make that suggestion.

Dear Anonymous -
No therapy suggestion then and you’re also right, no point in talking about partners when you are not comfortable with yourself.
What comes through in your letter is how much you blame yourself, how dirty you think you are, and how sad you feel. Such strong language putting yourself down “you’re the one people need protecting from.” They don’t need protection from you, they need protection from the disease you have. This disease does not define you, it does not change who you are. And somehow you need to get to a place where you can believe that.
It is really hard to sustain being a sex-positive queer. Everything around you tells you that you should be ashamed and when something happens – someone calling you a slut (when you are not owning the word), a sex partner saying something mean, catching an STD- that throws you off your self-confidence and all those judgments that you have successfully shucked off come rushing back in.
You are not a bad person. STDs are overwhelming the luck of the draw and you could have slept with just one person and gotten it. In all of this, keep in mind you are not only, herpes is one of the most common STDs, the stats go from 1 in 4 people having herpes from 1 in 6. As cheesy as it sounds, you are not alone.
You need to take time to heal. Sex was likely a way that you connected with your body and you need to find a way to reconnect that is not sexual. Yoga, walking, running, anything that puts you back in touch with your physical self.
Do you have friends you can talk to about this? What always amazes me is how many people feel disconnected from their body, sometimes because of catching an STD, sometimes for another reason. Find a person to talk to about this, you don’t even need to start off by telling them you caught an STD, just say you are feeling disconnected from your body and talk through it with them.
Give yourself time to cry, time to freak out. Take little steps to coming back into your physical self. Again, physical movement will help. Try touching your arms, your fingertips, your toes. Feel the parts of you that feel safe. You can do this.
Best,
Professor Foxy
If you have a question for Professor Foxy, send it to ProfessorFoxyATfeministingDOTcom.

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24 Comments

  1. konkonsn
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 1:20 am | Permalink

    You don’t want therapy, and that’s fine, but I do want to clear up something: therapists who are racist, homophobic, and judgmental should not be practicing. Judgmental shouldn’t even be in a therapists’ vocabulary; the goal is to assist the patient in whatever works best for her or him and not to say, “This is what I think you should do.” Rather, the therapist should say, “These are the tools I’ve learned to assist you in your recovery.”
    I specifically requested a Catholic therapist back when I was…well, it’s complicated, but let’s say that I’m queer and didn’t want to believe it, and my Catholic therapist still said, “You know, whatever makes you happy is the best route to go” (in reference that I should at least acknowledge and perhaps follow my queer leanings. I should also point out this was a counseling center, and the therapist was a practicing Catholic. If it had been a Catholic Counseling Center, I probably would’ve been MUCH worse off).
    So if you don’t want therapy, that’s fine, but I do think therapists get a very bad rep as being in a job where they tell you everything that’s wrong with you when that’s not how it (is supposed to) work at all.

  2. notemily
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    A friend of mine got herpes from the very first person she ever slept with. You can get it from anyone. Just because Anonymous got it from a one-night-stand doesn’t mean, well, anything really.
    I know how hard it is to NOT internalize all the messages that sex is dirty and STIs are punishment for having dirty, dirty sex. But when you get right down to it, those are cultural messages that have very little to do with the facts of the situation. My friend says she thinks of it as a skin condition. She takes meds to manage it (and tells her partners about it of course), but she doesn’t treat it as something that should be hidden and shameful.
    And she’s right, it is a skin condition. That’s it. Just because it happens to be associated with a particular part of your body doesn’t mean it’s a sign of immorality, or that you deserve to suffer. Just because you got it from having sex doesn’t mean sex is a bad and shameful thing. People get infections from touching doorknobs, from eating food, from kissing, from shaking hands. None of these things are shameful. They are all a part of life. And so is sex.
    Anonymous, you sound like you are in a lot of pain and I wish you the best in finding a way to be comfortable in your body.

  3. LexiconLuthor
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    This was very real and very helpful.
    There is such a hateful culture surrounding STD’s…if she’d caught the flu no one would be chastising her for not washing her hands enough. I love what the professor said…this disease doesn’t define you. Diseases aren’t all consuming definitions of people.
    Very well written. Very positive. We have a right to live independently, we have a right to love our bodies.

  4. Vivica
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I was diagnosed with herpes about 4 years ago. I had an outbreak when I was diagnosed, and it kinda freaked me out. I went to an awesome sex-positive STI clinic, and they gave me some take home material about it. I read some more stuff online, and found that once I knew more about it, it didn’t sound so scary. Since then, I haven’t had another outbreak, and it’s been fine. I don’t know if other people experience the same thing, but I did read that they can be quite manageable. I had an outbreak after a surgery, and my immune system was quite down, so I think that had something to do with it.
    I don’t know if you’ll connect with that, but thought I’d share anyway.
    You’re not alone, sister!

  5. Rachel
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    I was going to email Professor Foxy about this as well, because I also have a checkered sexual past and contracted genital herpes last year. And as corny as this may sound, your actions don’t define who you are, it is what you do afterward and how you deal with it. It took (and is still taking) me a long time to deal with the fact of having herpes. Every day was a mine field of things that would just set me off crying. But support does help tremendously, whether that be family or a friend. What I was surprised at, is that my best friends were totally supportive and fine with that fact that I had herpes. They knew me and regardless of the fact I had this disease, I would not be defined by it. Are you taking a pill each day (like Valtrex)? I started doing that and not having outbreaks every month (which is what was happening) really helped me to not think about it every day. And Professor Foxy is right, 1 in 4 people have this disease so the chances you know someone who has it is pretty high. This is not a death sentence, you are still a beautiful person no matter if you have herpes nor in the manner in which you contracted it. You are not alone and you will learn to love your body again, it may just take some slow healing and re introduction of yourself to you (if that makes sense). Be strong!

  6. hindeviola
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    I’m so sorry you’ve had to go through all of this! I have a small suggestion, and of course you are free to run with it or not- I’ve had body image issues in the past, though perhaps not as severe of a problem as you are facing. What has helped me more than I could ever imagine is yoga. I didn’t begin classes for any lofty reason, but rather because my institution began offering them for free. But whoa has it changed my self-image – spending just an hour and a half a week completely present in my body, thinking about nothing else, has forced me to love myself in a completely new way. It has a lot to do with my yoga teacher, who is an amazing woman, and if you are interested in this I hope you can find someone similar. The type of yoga I’m doing is anusara yoga, which is more spiritually/emotionally focused than some other types. I don’t think this could ever solve your problems completely, but it might be a useful step on your journey. Good luck!

  7. paperispatient
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    I often recommend Zumba (a dance workout that draws from Latin American styles as well as hip-hop and aerobics moves) to people for similar reasons. I’ve had some issues with food and body image, and Zumba helped me appreciate my body for what it can do as opposed to focusing on everything I thought was wrong with it. I was able to have fun in my body in a totally non-sexual way while doing something good for my physical and emotional health.

  8. Heina
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    We don’t call colds and flus “sneeze-transmitted diseases”; it’s really weird to me that STIs are even called that. No other forms of transmission lend themselves to a category of disease, which seems to me like a remnant of Puritanical and paranoid notions about sex. I like the idea of calling herpes a skin condition, because it is just that, and really, it’s just a viral infection. By that same token, AIDS and HPV could be a chronic viral infection and syphilis/gonorrhea a bacterial infection.
    This is not to suggest that I don’t think safer sex practices are important or that partners should not disclose before intercourse when they are putting a partner at risk, but I hate the idea that the only kind of diseases (and disparate diseases at that — everything from curable to chronic) we define by their means of transmission are STIs.

  9. Gesyckah
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    This hits so ridiculously close to home. Someone recently planted it in my mind that I should be hyper-aware of lesbian safe sex techniques. I promptly freaked out and started to look at pictures of STIs online to see if my bumps were unusual. The problem was that all of the pictures showed White people; I had no reference point for my own skin color. I ended up having to go to the doctor just to be sure.

  10. Ronijn
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Agreeing with the skin condition thing. I never thought of herpes that way until I read Ken Dahl’s graphic novel “Monsters”. He goes through the whole ordeal of finding out he has herpes, the guilt, the shame, educating himself and coming to terms with it. You can buy it at amazon http://www.amazon.com/Monsters-Ken-Dahl/dp/0979960940
    And what the others are saying is true – you’re not alone. It’s THE most common STI.

  11. cattrack2
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    As painful as it obviously is Anonymous thank you for sharing your story. Activities & exercises which get you back in touch with your body is a fantastic suggestion. Other activities which re-affirm the positive body image you once had are also productive (makeover, new clothes, etc). You may not want to date anyone now, but putting yourself in situations where you interact & meet other queer, sex positive people will be rewarded with positive energy as well.
    Life happens, but you’re so much more than a one night stand a long time ago. You’re a person who has much to contribute. Forget about how you got it, and start focusing on how you’re going to enjoy the life ahead of you.

  12. daytrippinariel
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I especially don’t have the time or emotional energy to seek out a queer-positive, anti-racist, non-judgmental therapist.
    To be fair most therapists have to deal with issues of race, culture, and sexuality all the time. They are trained to be non-judgmental and as someone to give you tools to feel better about yourself. People that become therapists want to help people and go through rigorous training. Yes, there are bad therapists. But if you go to someone who has the proper training and schooling they are most likely going to be open minded about these issues.

  13. Brianna G
    Posted March 21, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    While I absolutely believe this SHOULD be the case, alas, when I was seeking therapy, with good insurance coverage and lots of options, I had a really hard time finding a therapist who didn’t call one of my friends “he” when I was calling her “she” because she is transsexual, and an even harder time finding someone who was willing to accept that I could have fallen in love with a guy with severe mental illness, nor that just because I don’t have a ring doesn’t mean I can dump him no problem every time he switches personalities or has a mood swing.
    Thankfully now my insurance company provides self-descriptions of the therapist’s specialties, and it’s easy to find one who lists “Queer Counseling” and “Family Members of the Mentally Ill Counseling” on the site. But I do understand the issue, especially when you have to pay out of pocket and have to accept the lowest bidder.

  14. mjameson
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    I wanted to add something that has not come up in any of the comments:
    Neither the OP, Professor Foxy, nor any of the commenters covered this, but there is an inexpensive option available for therapy for the poster: going to a psychology training clinic. I see clients for as little as $1 on a sliding scale through my university training clinic (I’m a PhD student in clinical psychology). Even if the poster lives in a remote area, there is likely to be a training clinic in hir area. Obviously, there are some disadvantages to seeing a therapist in this type of setting (i.e. a less experienced therapist), but there are also several advantages, notably a high likelihood of receiving an evidence-based or empirically-supported therapy approach, and receiving therapy in a collaborative setting (in essence, you are getting therapy that’s informed by an entire supervision team, as opposed to just one person).
    I was also a bit concerned with Prof. Foxy’s advice. Overall, I think it’s sound, but I wish that she had couched her advice that, “you need to find a way to reconnect that is not sexual… Take little steps to coming back into your physical self” in the context of eventually reconnecting with her sexuality. It’s all well and good to reconnect with physicality, but there is no reason that someone with genital herpes cannot nor should not lead a full sexual life.
    Prof. Foxy’s reasonable, but decidedly incomplete, advice raises the question: does she possess adequate expertise to provide advice to posters in the midst of emotional turmoil? What credentials does she possess? I’ve looked on Feministing and done some cursory Google searches but not found the answers. Please enlighten me!

  15. Emily H.
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 1:09 am | Permalink

    Herpes is often treated as a huge deal. But, I’d be willing to be that your symptoms AREN’T a huge deal, and that if they weren’t associated with sex, or with a behavior that’s considered immoral, you wouldn’t freak out about them. People with herpes tend to have fewer and less severe outbreaks over time, as their immune system learns to cope with the infection. There may even come a time when you have zero outbreaks and your infection isn’t communicable.
    You talk a lot in your letter about the idea of being “diseased” or sleeping around; I’d suggest you try to spend more time considering what this infection really is, i.e. a pretty minor skin condition. “Diseased” is a big scary abstraction, but the concrete physical reality of herpes isn’t something to be terribly scared of.
    Finally, it really doesn’t matter that you got it through a one-night stand. Casual sex can be a great, fun experience that teaches you a lot about your body and your sexual desires. The fact that it comes with some risks doesn’t change that. People who work in schools or live in a college dorm are at more risk of catching the flu, but that doesn’t mean they did something dumb or should feel “diseased” if they catch it. A minor infection is a minor infection, no matter how you got it.

  16. Kessei
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I actually blame the “wrap it up” campaigns for some of the stigma around herpes and HPV, because the people I know involved in those campaigns consistently talk about “safe sex” and “worry-free sex”. They don’t mention that herpes and HPV can easily pass while using a condom, in part because they’re worried (perhaps rightly) that people will hear that message and think that condoms are worthless.
    Consequently, many people use condoms and assume they’re safe, and that they can’t become infected with herpes or risk the cancer/fertility problems associated with certain HPV strains.
    Add to that the fact that most people who have HPV or herpes don’t know they have it. The letter-writer may have had it for years and simply not had a noticeable break-out until recently; while the first break-out is usually the most prominent, that isn’t always the case.
    While limiting the number of (direct and indirect) sex partners helps immensely, there’s no sure-fire way to prevent either disease, so I think people should recognize that there’s a risk every time they have sex. Even in a monogamous, long-term relationship, there’s a risk, since there’s always the possibility that your partner will be unfaithful or will become infected through some other means. Roll the dice enough times, especially with multiple partners, and you’re bound to get something eventually.
    If more people understood that, I think much of the stigma would go away.

  17. Leah
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    This post hit me really hard. I have been thinking/studying/wondering about these issues – the stigma of having an STI in our culture and how it is at once so present and so invisible.
    I am actually working on a book on the subject, and I would like to incorporate the stories of people who have contracted/been diagnosed with STIs in their own words.
    If you would like to be involved with this project (still in early phases) and possibly contribute your story, please contact me. You can reach me through my blog at notadirtyword.net

  18. SaraLaffs
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    I went through some of these feelings after a sexual assault, and after getting an abornal pap smear result in a post-assault exam (when it rains, it pours). I had really enjoyed yoga before, but I couldn’t stand to do it for a long time after just because I felt so unconnected to my body. I felt, in a way, that my body had betrayed me. It took a long time, and, yes, both individual counseling and a couple of support groups, before I began the process of working back to where I was before the assault.
    (FWIW, I got my counseling at a local nonprofit that specializes in family and women’s issues. The first several sessions were free, and then there was a sliding rate scale based on income. I hope there’s something like this in your area, Anonymous.)

  19. ladylicious
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    I know it seems like a huge deal when you are first diagnosed, but it’s really not. It’s definitely a downer, but it’s not the end of the world. I got diagnosed when I was 16. I got it from my first boyfriend and it was devastating at the time. I told my best friend and her advice to me was, don’t ever tell anyone (not even the people you have sex with). Obviously, advice from one messed up 16 year old to another was not so much helpful. The most important thing you can do is learn to talk about it, so that when you need to talk to a new partner it’s not impossible to handle. The longer you wait to talk about it the harder it is to do. I know from personal experience, because the one person I did tell shamed me and basically told me I should keep it a secret-I was really afraid to talk to anyone after that. It’s much worse to keep it to yourself than it is to risk embarrassment or rejection. You’ll feel a lot better after you let someone else know what you are going through and if they can’t handle it they weren’t really your friend in the first place. It might take some time before you are ready to get back out there or talk to anyone, but trust me, talking about it in a safe place is the best thing that you can do for yourself. If it’s not with a therapist, then find your most trusted and understanding friend. You’ll get through it and in some ways, you might actually come out stronger and healthier than before, with a better sense of who you are and what you really want. You can get through this. Good luck!

  20. feministinmississippi
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    i got oral herpes (cold sores) after a wild vacation when i had kissed a few guys. my first outbreak was a horribly painful experience and since then i’ve had one cold sore every month. it’s annoying and painful and sometimes i regret kissing around because i really got nothing out of it than the cold sores.
    but you know what, neither i nor you did anything out of the ordinary. some people get lucky and don’t catch STDs or pregnancy, and some people do. it’s really just by chance, not anybody’s fault. there have been times when i took risks and got lucky, very lucky. someone unlucky in my situation may have gotten assaulted.
    so as everyone has said, it’s definitely not your fault and you shouldn’t feel guilty. however, i know that sometimes i feel guilty no matter what. in those times, instead of fighting the guilty feeling, i just “let it go.” i just admit to myself that yes, i made a mistake, i got punished for it, and SO WHAT? it’s a lot more effective for me to do that than to debate in my mind whether i was guilty or not. i don’t have to defend myself to anyone either.
    maybe that will work for you too.

  21. rhowan
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    “There may even come a time when you have zero outbreaks and your infection isn’t communicable.”
    Ooooh careful there. Even if you aren’t having (noticeable) outbreaks that doesn’t mean you can’t communicate the virus to someone else. This is one of the reasons so many people have it… most people either don’t realize they have it in the first place, or they think it’s “gone away”.

  22. SecondBeach
    Posted March 22, 2010 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I know exactly how you’re feeling now. The only thing that ended up helping me was focusing on the fact that I had a minor skin condition. Your question wasn’t about partners, but literally the only impact on my life this has had is that makes me be open and honest with sexual partners in a way I may have not been otherwise (which has only benefited me)
    I like this post too:
    http://carnalnation.com/content/34509/736/how-herpes-saved-my-life

  23. TabloidScully
    Posted March 23, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been a sex-positive person, and when I tested positive for genital warts, it completely rocked my world. My previous pap smear less than six months earlier gave me a clean bill of health–which made me realize I had contracted the infection from a partner’s infidelity.
    Though I had known about the infidelity for months (because he told me immediately after it happened, and made every effort to work on the relationship and his own issues that enabled that situation) the viral confirmation of what he had done, and the fact that it would disproportionately effect me, pushed me into a deep depression. Girlfriends who had understood my desire to give him another chance didn’t understand staying with him then, because “OMG, he gave you a DISEASE,” never mind that the infection didn’t even surface until nearly a year after his indiscretion.
    Even though my infection is one that over 75 percent of the population struggles with and I tested negative for the cancerous version of HPV, I also struggled with the shame and the sense of my own body being broken. The fact that I was one of the small minority who contracted a disease through a partner’s unfaithfulness brought me little comfort; in fact, it served as one more stinging reminder of his betrayal of us. It brought up a lot of those old feelings I had made an honest effort to work through.
    Ultimately, I had to get back in touch with my body. Once the scalding from the acid used to burn the warts off had subsided, I focused on developing a more disciplined exercise routine. This was two-fold; first, it helped my immune system get stronger, which would ideally keep the infection from promoting more warts and second, it put back in touch with what I had come to objectify as broken: my body. I also began consuming a lot of Vitamin-B, which has been proven to be effective against HPV. My hard work paid off, because doctors generally view a lack of any warts for two years is proof the infection has left your system.
    My advice to you is to get back in touch with your body. Yoga is a great suggestion, but also learning to accept that you are a sexual being, and that’s okay. Your infection is not a punishment for your sexual appetite, any more than mine was a punishment for mine or my partner’s. Most people, if they know they are infected, will communicate that with those their being intimate with (I imagine your one-night stand probably didn’t, but even if they did, it’s a reflection on their lack of integrity to communicate that to you; it is not a reflection on you for trusting a stranger to be a decent person).

  24. April
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    What you’re saying makes sense, but saying that you were “punished” for a pseudo-sexual behavior (kissing multiple people) is only reinforcing slut-shaming behavior. No one should be “punished” for kissing.

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