This interview will appear in Lithium‘s SEX print issue, set to be released in June.
Emily Depasse is a Philadelphia-based sex educator and sexologist who has committed herself to raising awareness and, as she puts it, “redefining the narratives around sexually-transmitted diseases and infections.” Diagnosed with herpes (HSV-2 genital herpes) in 2015, Emily has made it her mission to shed light on STDs and STIs and empower people living with them.
Lithium Magazine: What made you want to become a sexologist/sex educator?
Emily Depasse: Like many of life’s most transformative events, my career trajectory was not planned. In second grade, I had a deep desire to become a teacher. I believe that my initial desire to become a teacher was very much intuitive—I just didn’t know what kind of teacher I wanted to become.
Eventually I entered college as an elementary education major. Somewhere during my first year of fulfilling general education credits, my mind wandered. I switched from elementary education to undecided, and even to psychology. I’ve always been passionate about history, and at one point considered it as a major. While browsing the history major list, I discovered a women’s history course—and that’s [what] caused me to continue my search. Located under the umbrella term of “interdisciplinary studies,” I found my new home and new intended major of gender and sexuality studies. It was also during this period that I began to align myself with feminism and use the word “feminist” as a self-descriptor.
It was also during my sophomore year, during a sociology and gender course, that I learned about sex therapy as a career track. Several family members thought it was just a phase, but from that moment forward my career niche really began. Originally, I wanted to explore the intersection of body politics and sexuality with a specialization in clinical service to clients with eating disorders and body dysmorphia—after my experience of overcoming an eating disorder in high school. I’ve always been passionate about utilizing my own experiences to educate others and better the world.
Lithium: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience with finding out you had herpes? How did it affect you?
Emily: My story actually begins prior to my official diagnosis in 2015. In 2013, I received a false positive IgM herpes test from my then-gynecologist. I received my results while on vacation with my family in North Carolina through a voicemail message. In my mind, it’s never a good sign when your gynecologist calls you while on vacation…and it’s even worse when they drop a life-changing bomb in your voicemail.
I was initially shocked. I’d never had an outbreak before and had little knowledge related to herpes. I soon became emotionally withdrawn and filled with deep sadness as I paced along the seaside. A month or so after returning from vacation, I set up an appointment with my primary care doctor who requested that I have another test for confirmation. This doctor used both IgM and IgG serological tests and it was later determined that I did not have herpes. I was beyond relieved. As I later learned, herpes isn’t usually included in standard STI testing panels, and false positives is one of the reasons it isn’t.
When I felt a disruption that morning in July of 2015, I thought back to my false-positive test results, and my subsequent testing that remained negative. Until then, I’d been telling myself it was just irritation from wearing lacy underwear, or maybe just a sudden yeast infection. But it felt different. This time, it was really herpes.
When I showed up at the clinic, I remember telling the doctor, “I think it was just the underwear I wore last night.” I was still trying to convince myself that I wasn’t broken. Upon her review, she said, “This looks herpetic.” Herpes cannot be diagnosed simply by looking at someone, so she scraped my lesions and also took a blood sample. Tears filled my eyes. I would have the results of the sample within two days, but the blood work would take a bit longer. She sent me home with a prescription for Valtrex. Despite the lingering uncertainty, I felt overwhelmed [by] the weight of the stigma. I began questioning my future relationships, sexual encounters, and shot at love. “Who will love me now that I have this?” I cried into my dad’s shoulder.
I’m someone who believes that everything does happen for a reason, [and so] I thought back to my false positive. Was it a sign? Was it the universe preparing me for this? A sick mechanism of foreshadowing within my own life? I didn’t understand at the time, but later learned that my diagnosis would lead me to a greater purpose and career niche.
Lithium: Was it hard for you to decide whether to keep your diagnosis a secret or share it with the world?
Emily: The first people I told were my parents… I also remember telling my friends. I met with one friend at a brewery a few days after my diagnosis, and he was very sympathetic and just wanted to be there for me. I’m sure that I texted other friends who were long-distance. One conversation that really sticks out to me was when my friend and I ate Chipotle and made margaritas together in my old backyard and I just remember her saying, “Oh my God, Em, are you okay?!” There was no judgment or moment when I felt like she didn’t accept me. She just wanted to know that I was okay and how she could be there for me. A second conversation that I recall was when several friends from elementary school and I had brunch together. One friend remarked, “I used to think that STIs only happened to certain people until you were diagnosed.”
One aspect of making my diagnosis public that I really struggled with was maintaining the line of disclosing my diagnosis, and not my partner’s. I lived in a small town at the time, and going public with my diagnosis would potentially make my partner’s diagnosis public as well. Although that breakup served as the catalyst for making my diagnosis public, it was no longer about him. It was about the stigma and how it affected me. I had previously written one blog entry where I discussed a deep sadness, but never mentioned what it was that I was enduring. A few days after the breakup, I felt confident enough to share my story. And so I posted a Facebook status, with a blog post that soon followed. For me, [keeping] that secret was endorsing the stigma, and public disclosure allowed me to relieve that weight.
Lithium: What do you remember learning about herpes before you were diagnosed?
Emily: Very little. I was enrolled in Catholic school from kindergarten through twelfth grade and received an abstinence-only education. I remember the videos that preached about reserving sex and yourself for someone special, and that sex was strictly for procreation. In college I took a human sexuality course in a health education department, but even that course focused on clinical definitions and symptoms [instead of social stigma]. Since my diagnosis, I’ve actually spoken as a guest speaker in this class and know that some of my blog posts are still assigned for students’ reading.
Lithium: What advice would you give to someone who recently found out they have genital herpes?
Emily: Acceptance starts from within. From my own experience, and in speaking to other folks who have received and experienced a herpes diagnosis, much of our perspective and worth is centered on relationships and partners. My internal questioning of “Who will love me?” is a perfect example of this. We worry about disclosure, public perception, how our sex lives will change, and if we can still engage in casual sex. Unpacking and externalizing herpes stigma requires a significant amount of unlearning societal representations of STDs and STIs. No matter what type of relationship you wish to engage in, other people’s acceptance is not solely responsible for [your self-acceptance].
Lithium: How can people with herpes take care of their mental health? Do you have any tips for dealing with stigma?
Emily: Step 1: Allow yourself to feel. It’s okay to feel sad, hopeless, and angry. It’s okay to cry and listen to sad music. But know that you don’t have to go through it alone. It’s okay to reach out to those who love and support you so that you can lean into them during your struggle. And there’s no time frame for feeling like yourself again, either. Know that it will take time to unlearn the stigma and reacquaint yourself with your body with this virus.
I also would advise paying attention to your habits and knowing when you may need some outside assistance from a professional. I never thought that anyone could understand what I was going through, and so I didn’t reach out. Instead I turned to alcohol, which was masked safely under binge-drinking culture. That’s another reason why I’m continuing on my journey to become a sex therapist: to be the therapist that I never had after my diagnosis.
Lithium: I’m super excited about your upcoming podcast! What can people expect to hear on it, and where can they find it? Any other upcoming projects?
Emily: Thank you! I’m excited too! My podcast is entitled Sex, Coffee, and Social Justice. For now, you can follow its Instagram account and subscribe to my mailing list for updates! I’m still gathering my interview list and am hopeful to have episodes out this summer. If folks have ideas of who to interview, or even feel that they might be a good candidate, I ask that they consider becoming a patron of my work! I’m also excited to announce a project that’s been in my mind for over a year. I’m releasing an affirmation deck specifically for those who are struggling to overcome an STI diagnosis. I am really excited to release it and am hopeful that it may even have a place in doctors’ offices and clinics following a diagnosis.
For more on Emily, visit www.emilydepasse.com.
By Charlotte Smith
Illustration by Hallie Beck