When Emily Depasse was diagnosed with herpes as a college student, she thought her life was over. The doctors weren’t helpful — it took many visits for them to even properly diagnose her. Once they did, almost no one could give her comprehensive information about herpes and she had almost no knowledge of STIs. She also was no more prepared for the stigma and judgment she encountered than she had been for her initial diagnosis. Her boyfriend and subsequent sexual partners were either hesitant to be intimate with her or trivialized her condition.
She didn’t receive any support from others nor any information from doctors, so she did what many people reading inDIYpendent may have done: She did everything herself. She taught herself everything she could about STIs, herpes specifically. She then used her knowledge to educate others in her life, so they’d understand how it was affecting her and how they can best support her. Now Emily is a sexologist and influencer who is working toward becoming a sex therapist. She shares information regarding STIs by speaking at schools and conferences. She’s also been featured in many places, including Killer and a Sweet Thang’s podcast, PillowTalk. Now, she shares her expertise and wisdom with us:
How did you learn that you had acquired herpes?
After sleeping with a new-ish partner (we have a history together, but this was a reintroduction to our physical relationship after some time apart) for two weeks, I woke up one morning to severe pain around my vaginal opening. I made an appointment with my PCP (primary care physician), but they referred me to an urgent care center with gynecological services. It was there that the healthcare provider stated, "This looks herpetic." She took a sample of the lesions (which was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had) and a blood sample. My blood sample turned up negative, while the swabbed sample turned up positive for herpes, signaling a recent infection.
Emily Depasse. Source: https://www.emilydepasse.com/
How did you get all your information yourself?
After my diagnosis, I was faced with a lot of questions. When did I get it? How did I get it? Did he know he had it? Does anyone else have it? This internal questioning led me down the rabbit hole to Google, Reddit, and several herpes-related forums. One of the most difficult aspects of this diagnosis, as with many, is there are many aspects of uncertainty I would have to accept. I was already struggling to accept my diagnosis, so the thought of accepting uncertainty was quite overbearing. This internal questioning kept me up until 2 to 3 a.m. most nights. Aside from forums, I spent a lot of time studying information from the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). From there, much of my work has been in theory and application of what I've learned in my undergraduate and graduate studies.
"For me, one sign of a truly inclusive and comprehensive sex education program includes STI+ narratives and how to communicate and disclose our STI status, whether positive or negative, with our partners."
What about your diagnosis made you want to be a sex educator?
I had wanted to be a sex therapist long before my diagnosis. My diagnosis shifted my intended career focus. It was not until being faced with a positive herpes diagnosis that I realized how much unlearning I had to overcome. To be honest, I was unaware that STI stigma even existed. After my diagnosis, I began encountering STI stigma everywhere. In television, online, in the news, and in conversations among friends. It's from this place, a place of my growing awareness, internalization, and unlearning, that I found a connection and voice in this work.
As I'm sure you're fairly aware, sex education in the U.S. is not the best. What tips do you have for our readers who want to DIY their own sex education? As in, who want to learn about their sexual health themselves?
One of my favorite resources for sex education right now is Blume, which is one of many reasons why I partnered with them. Blume hones in on the lack of comprehensive sex education in the US. Something that I rarely see with these programs is education around STI stigma. For me, one sign of a truly inclusive and comprehensive sex education program includes STI+ narratives and how to communicate and disclose our STI status, whether positive or negative, with our partners. The onus is not solely on a partner who tests positive; we should all be communicating about our sexual health.
I also believe that Instagram is one of the most accessible places to accumulate knowledge, although we need to be mindful of the information we're consuming. If we're only learning from [white, cisgender, thinable-bodied, etc. sex educators, then] we're not learning all of the layers that encompass sex and sex education. There's so much more to sex education than body parts and barrier methods. Being a sex educator is a dedication to social and racial justice and the deconstruction of various stigmas and stereotypes (including STI stigma). Some of my favorite sex educators on Instagram are@sexpositive_families, @ihartericka, @whatsmybodydoing, @thefatsextherapist, @ericasmith.sex.ed, @june.pilote, and @blkgirlmanifest.
How were you able to take the information you learned and use it to begin building a brand for yourself?
I approach my page from the mindset of, "What would I have appreciated when I was diagnosed? What would have comforted me, made me feel less alone?" It's from this space that I approach my work. My page wasn't always @sexelducation. It was never my intention to become an Instagram sex educator. It's truly an honor to be in this space and witness so much learning, unlearning, and conversation around STI stigma. The fact that this is a conversation others are wanting, advocating for, and engaging in is meaningful to me because it means more and more people are starting to care and find value in this knowledge. Much of my content is an integration of experience, knowledge, thought, and application. While my page focuses on STI stigma, my goal extends into authenticity and vulnerability we share in relationships. That's where my inner sex therapist shines.
Resilience Affirmation Deck. Source: https://www.emilydepasse.com/
Do you have any advice on how to unlearn every stigma or false piece of information about STIs?
I recently launched my first product, The Resilience Affirmation Deck, which also happens to be the first and only tangible tool to unlearn STI stigma and shame — so that might be a great start for someone who is newly diagnosed! I'd also recommend my Instagram page, along with the work of Courtney Brame, founder of Something Positive for Positive People (podcast and nonprofit), @positive.results.us (Instagram for womxn working through a positive diagnosis), and Heather Haskins, who runs several online Instagram support groups. As far as agency-based recommendations, ASHA is the most user-friendly and is less stigmatizing than others.