According to the CDC, over 20% of American women ages 14-49 have genital herpes. Ella Dawson tells teenage girls how to fight the stigma.

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I remember the first time I was ever called a whore. I had just turned fifteen and this boy, this arrogant little fucker, was angry because I had “broken up” with him after one movie date in order to ask out someone cuter. Our group of friends was walking to the gas station after school to buy gigantic fountain sodas, and he just said it. Whore. I don’t even remember why. He said it with this sick smirk like he was joking but I knew he wasn’t joking. When you know something is so, so wrong but you can’t articulate it, it feels like you are being strangled. I must have told him to go fuck himself, but no last word could compete with the impact of his.

Eventually, a year or two later, I found the term “slut-shaming” in the pages of some funky feminist magazine, and I could breathe again.

I wouldn’t experience that strangled feeling for years, but it was even worse the second time because I was older and supposed to be stronger. I was about to turn twenty-one and the guy I was rapidly falling in love with called me a whore on the phone because I had just told him I had genital herpes. But the term “slut-shaming” didn’t fit because I didn’t think he was wrong this time. I was a whore—I had to be a whore, if this had happened to me. All that consensual casual sex I’d had with men who respected me, maybe I’d been wrong all along. Maybe I was a joke, a cautionary tale, an “empowered feminist” cliché. “How can you defend your precious hookup culture now?” he texted me, this boy who I adored so much. I couldn’t defend it, and that hurt with a soul-flattening, isolating chill.

That hurt wouldn’t make sense to me until I found the term “STI stigma” on tumblr, and I could breathe again.

This world will tell you that you are worthless: because you are a girl, because you are sexually active, because you have a virus, because you have a voice. Don’t listen to it.

This world will try to shut you up: because you are weak, because you are irresponsible, because you are damaged, because you are stupid. Don’t let it.

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Here’s what you should do instead: arm yourself with knowledge. Read everything you can, from sex-positive tumblr blogs to feminist magazines to your own goddamn journal. Learn the words that the world doesn’t want you to recognize yourself in. Use those words to tell your own story, because your experience is valid and necessary for us all to hear. Shout your opinion in a Facebook status or whisper it to a trusted friend. Be safe, and go slow, and make decisions that are right for you, because this world doesn’t look kindly upon girls who speak out. But please, for me, don’t be quiet. Don’t listen to that loud terror in your throat that tells you to be quiet. Noise is how the world changes.

Everything I do is for you. This is all for you. This is for us.

P.S. You are stronger than I was at your age. I am so proud of you.

This post originally appeared on ellacydawson.wordpress.com. Image courtesy Ella Dawson. 

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Ella Dawson is a twenty-something feminist who cares too much about The Bachelor. She writes about pop culture, social media and sexual health on her blog. Follow her on Twitter @brosandprose.

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