Rediscovering my sexuality after getting diagnosed with herpes.
It was the first week of 2019 and I was laying on my boyfriend’s couch with my legs splayed open, trying to get a better look at my vagina.
With my legs in the air, I balanced my iPhone between my feet, using its flash to shed some light on my “situation.” I winced. I was inspecting my vagina in an attempt to find the source of the pain I had been experiencing for nearly two days. It was a pain that felt entirely foreign to me, and which, despite my best efforts, had amplified.
Every time I went to the bathroom, it burned. Even the slightest touch left me reeling. Neither sitting nor standing nor walking offered any relief, and though I tried to push my hypochondriacal tendencies aside, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was actually wrong.
Looking intently at my vagina, I noticed two small sores near its opening. They weren’t menacing, exactly, but they were certainly shocking, and they were indicative of a problem I wasn’t yet ready to come to terms with. Everything else looked swollen and red and entirely unlike the vagina I had known and loved — I was stunned.
I quickly booked the next available appointment at the nearest gynecologist, and the following morning my fears were confirmed: “Looks like a classic case of genital herpes,” she said.
Happy fucking New Year.
Over the next few days, the sores began to multiply as the virus took effect, and my vagina morphed into something completely alien that I could no longer recognize as my own. I became fixated on examining this strange new vulva and mentally cataloging all of the changes it underwent. Had the pain not served as a reminder that my genitals and I were connected, I would have felt like a third-party observer — like someone who becomes entranced by a car wreck, but who doesn’t bear the emotional repercussions because they don’t know anyone involved. While I no longer felt a personal connection to my pussy, I didn’t have the option to forego the emotional repercussions. The pain kept me tethered to my new reality– a reminder that, on some level, this was my fault, and I would have to take ownership of the pussy that lay before me.
Maybe it’s vanity, or maybe it’s a well-fed ego, but the physical changes to my vagina seemed to take a larger toll on my mental health than the sores did.
Sure the pain was intense, but the dysphoria I experienced upon looking down at my vagina was difficult to reconcile. My “porn star pussy,” as one ex had dubbed it, had always been a point of pride for me. To me, she was attractive: discrete, symmetrical, and perhaps a bit mysterious. The sort of pussy that never feared having sex with the lights on or being naked in a women’s locker room. The sort of pussy that never felt inclined to Google “is my vagina normal?” I always thought that if my pussy were a celebrity, she would be Kate Upton — obvious hot girl with girl-next-door charm.
And what about everything we’d been through together?
She had been a loyal and adventurous comrade through many o’ late night romps. She had been patient when dozens of men failed to find (or even look for) her clitoris. She had endured razor burns and amateur bikini waxes, periods that felt more like hemorrhages, G-strings that hugged her a little too tightly, and an endless slew of incorrectly inserted tampons. Hell, she was even a survivor of sexual assault.
But here she was, bruised by a little bout of herpes. I wasn’t sure if I was disappointed in her for going down without a fight, or me for putting her in this situation in the first place. I felt no synchronicity between myself and the part of my body with which it had always been the easiest to connect.
As the days passed, I worried that I had lost my porn star pussy forever. That sex would never be enjoyable again, and that even when the sores healed, things would always be “different.”
To add insult to injury, the pain seemed only to worsen. I created a contraption out of a sliced up water bottle just to prevent pee from cascading over my sores every time I used the bathroom. It was one of those things that felt embarrassing, even when I was the only one there to witness it.
Amidst all of the pain and embarrassment, I tried to keep moving forward. I found solace in oversharing, in telling my friends about my herpes and my experience. I quickly discovered that, for me, herpes was like the opposite of Tinker Bell; the more attention I paid it, the weaker it became. I started incorporating herpes jokes into my Sunday night stand-up shtick, knowing that 1 in 6 audience members could probably relate. Even if they couldn’t, I was putting a face on the “Hot Girls With Herpes” movement, and I felt a strange sort of bravery for doing so.
Before contracting herpes I had always assumed that getting an incurable STI would be the end of life as I knew it. Herpes, especially, seemed incredibly daunting. It is the go-to STI for scaring teens into abstinence and warning women about the dangers of being “too slutty.”
I distinctly remember sitting in my high school health class as dozens of students screamed in horror when a 3×5 foot projection of genital herpes lit up the chalkboard. I was convinced that anyone who contracted it would become a social pariah. However, once I became infected with herpes, it didn’t seem all that life-altering. Sure it was ugly and painful, but it certainly didn’t result in my societal isolation. In fact, several of my friends had been quietly living with genital herpes for years, and were more than happy to share their tips of the trade. Herpes, as I discovered, is far more menacing when shrouded in mystery than it is on the flesh.
After about two weeks, the sores began to heal.
I watched in amazement as my porn star pussy made her triumphant return to the spotlight; her resilience was uncanny. I almost felt foolish for doubting her. What had seemed like irreversible damage had faded away to reveal the precise pussy I had always recognized as my own, but this time, she was stronger. I realized that her celebrity persona wasn’t Kate Upton after all — Kate simply lacked the depth of my pussy. She was more like Britney Spears: a divorced mother of two who overcame an addiction problem and reclaimed her place on the throne, hot as ever.
Of course, I would never overcome herpes entirely, but knowing that my pussy and I could withstand its wrath, fostered a deeper connection between us. My dysphoria turned into a re-centering, and I felt confident that my mental revival had catalyzed my physical one.
I often categorize my life into a series of “before and after”s. Who I was and who I became resulting from my experiences — things like living abroad, my parents’ divorce, and my first real heartbreak — each landmark an era of becoming that has changed me irreversibly. I assumed getting herpes would be another one of those “before and after”s, that I would look back on herpes-free Jessie and feel that, in some consequential way, I was different. That my vagina, my sexuality, and my personal connection to both could never feel quite as strong.
Instead, contracting herpes became an exercise in my ability to remain unchanged — to reconsider the idea that having an STI made me any less sexy, funny, desirable, smart, or womanly. That the aesthetic value of my vagina was indicative of my sexual prowess. That my personhood could, in any way, be shaken by the presence of a few open sores. Herpes was a bold reminder that I was placing too much stock in others’ perceptions of my desirability, and that this mindset, more so than my herpes, was making me sick.
Contracting herpes made me realize that perhaps a porn star pussy is not a pussy after all, but a commitment to coexisting peacefully with the most unlovable parts of yourself. And I think that’s something worth spreading.
First photo by Eileen Kelly, the following two by Dina Veloric.