If you’ve ever had a one night stand and then felt like you shouldn’t talk about it, worried that you cared too much about sex outside of a relationship or acquired an STI from an abusive partner, you’re not alone. Ella Dawson experienced all of these issues and writes about them, both so she can process it all and to help others who relate. I loved chatting with Ella for this week’s Girl Boner Radio episode.
Stream it on Apple Podcasts (iPhone app), iHeartRadio, Spotify or below! Or read on for a lightly edited, partial transcript.
Casual Sex, Caring “Too Much” and STIs with Ella Dawson
a lightly edited Girl Boner Radio transcript
Have you ever had an experience where you realize that something you went through years ago—say during an early relationship or a particular time you had sex—had been affecting you ever since? It could be a comment someone made that stuck with you or a wound that can still get prodded now…or even recognizing that something you endured was harmful or abusive.
I imagine most of us have these types of epiphanies at some point. Sex and culture critic Ella Dawson certainly has, and she writes about them—both for her own ability to process it all and to help others who might relate.
Ella’s writing has been published by ELLE, MTV, Vox, Women’s Health and more. Throughout her work, she speaks to the crisis of miscommunication in our lives, from our dehumanizing culture of casual sex to how shame keeps us silent about our mental and sexual health.
I was so grateful for the chance to talk with her about some of her experiences, specifically around casual sex, what some folks perceive as “caring too much” about that sex and the seldom talked about link between STIs and intimate partner violence.
Ella is so insightful and honest, and her writing and advocacy are making a real difference. I really think you’ll appreciate what she had to say.
[a few bars of upbeat, acoustic music]
Of the many people I’ve asked what they learned about sex or sexuality growing up, I had never heard this response: Ella told me she first learned about sex by reading erotic Harry Potter fan fiction.
When I was a preteen and a teenager, I’m thinking maybe freshman year of high school, LiveJournal was still a platform that a lot of people used on the internet, and I kind of stumbled into a community of Harry Potter fans who shared fan art of their favorite characters. And through that community started reading fan fiction, which are stories written about characters by fans. And sometimes they can be very loyal to the books or the television shows that inspired them. And sometimes they’re a little stranger.
And I started to read, around age 13, 14, 15, different short stories that were erotic in nature about some of my favorite characters. It was definitely the first time I’d encountered sexually explicit material of any kind, other than like stumbling across porn videos as a child too young to understand them. So, I think that there’s a comfort with seeing your favorite characters experience sexual situations, because I felt like they were my friends.
It was also often written by fellow teenagers and young people, particularly women. So there were stories about sexuality and desire that really reminded me of my own experiences. And all together, it was quite a pleasant introduction to desire and sexuality because it felt very safe in that way.
One thing that stands out in my mind when I think of Ella and her writing is an essay she published in March 2019 called “Stop Calling it Casual Sex.” In it, she writes, “The problem is not the act. The problem is how we treat each other.”
I think “casual sex” is a misnomer. I think that the word casual gives us permission to be casual with each other. There’s nothing wrong with one night stands. Like, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex outside of a relationship, but I think that we don’t necessarily know how to have casual sex in a way that is respectful of each other, that is communicative.
We tend to see it as this binary, where you either love and respect and commit to the person you’re having sex with or you treat them like they’re disposable. And it’s a forgettable one night stand experience that focuses solely on your own pleasure and what you want to get out of it. And it becomes almost a competition to care less than the other person does. I think that’s particularly true for young people and on college campuses, where you’re becoming sexually active, you’re learning what you want, and you become very defensive about your feelings. And it’s very alienating and dehumanizing.
Ella told me she started thinking a lot about this idea in her 20s after casual sex experiences that fit that felt exactly that way: dehumanizing. During that time, she was also diagnosed with an STI.
And that forced me to realize that I wasn’t having conversations with my sexual partners, particularly my casual sex partners, that would have made those experiences more respectful and gratifying. And in a weird way, getting an STI forced me to actually talk to the people I was sleeping with about what do you want? What feels good for you? How should we do this safely together?
As she gets older, Ella increasingly sees the language around casual sex as a huge part of the problem.
“Casual” itself as a word carries a lot of baggage. And I don’t think we should treat each other casually, even if we’re looking for a sexual experience that is fleeting and maybe not capital M meaningful, but still matters to the people who are participating because we’re both humans at the end of the day.
Ella wrote a poignant essay called “The Care Less Contest.” An excerpt called “When Your One Night Stand Ignores You on Campus” appears on her blog. I asked her to share a bit about the personal experience behind it. I think it really illustrates the problems she described.
When I was a sophomore in college, I had a one night stand with a very nice boy who I had been aware of on campus because we lived in the same dormitory complex so I felt like we knew each other even though we had never interacted. We wound up going home with each other because I approached him at a party. We’d both been drinking and neither of us was too far gone to consent, but now many years later, I don’t fully remember how we got to my dormitory.
Ella does recall that they had “this interesting physical connection” and the sex they shared felt really intimate.
We were very gentle and sweet with each other, even though we were strangers. And at the end of the night I said, “I would really like to see you again.” We exchanged numbers. And from that point forward, we just ignored each other.
[brief, melancholy music]
We would bump into each other at the student dining hall. We would bump into each other in the laundry room of our dorm. And there was always this weird, silent pact to pretend nothing had ever happened. And I felt super uncomfortable with that because I suspected this was a cool person.
And I sent him a text message at one point saying, “You know, I feel like you’re really interesting person. I’d like to get to know you.” And he didn’t reply for weeks. It just didn’t make sense to me, the idea that we were supposed to pretend we’d never had this pleasurable, intimate, really fulfilling sexual moment.
Ella wasn’t looking for a relationship at the time, but they had had great sex. So having sex again felt like a no brainer.
If we had great sex, why would we not want to have great sex again? I don’t need to be your Valentine and hang out with you all the time. But there was this strange social norm on campus where if you had a one night stand, you met someone at a party, alcohol was involved, you got to pretend it just never happened.
But when you live on a tiny college campus with someone you see them all the time. It took me a while to realize how bizarre that social norm was and how toxic it was. It wasn’t comfortable for me; it wasn’t comfortable for him. I think we were both trying to navigate a situation that didn’t feel right and norms that didn’t feel right.
In an ironic twist, Ella said, she and the guy ended up being in a small English class together years later. She said it was nice, because unlike casual sex, there is a social script for interacting as classmates.
And even now, I think we’re still Facebook friends, and every so often will like the same link. And it’s like this weird, parallel universe in which we could have been friends and shared dog memes. But the norms around casual sex, just really – I think we’re too young to navigate them and understand we could break those norms if we wanted to and acknowledge each other as people. Plus, I think we’re both just shy.
As you were sharing that, I was thinking how. I feel like I’ve been on both sides of a situation where I cared more than the person I had sex with, felt like I cared more about the experience than they did, in the ways that they behaved afterward. I’ve also been on the side of it where I, I don’t know if it’s because I learned that people are so casual about it, but I became much more casual about it, and so I assumed that people I slept with would be casual. And I remember one scenario where I really hurt somebody.
When I have been on the side where I felt like, Oh, I think I felt more about this experience than this person did, even if I didn’t want like you said a Valentine or relationship. I felt shame about caring too much. I felt like I had to seem cool: “Oh, yeah, we just had sex.” Like no big deal and just move on with it.
I’ve been on both sides of it, too. I’ve been the person who got “attached.” I’ve also been the person who felt like the other person expected more from me or wanted more from me than I was interested in giving that person. There’s so much shame on all sides of it, I think, because we don’t have the vocabulary or the permission to say in plain terms what we want or don’t want. It’s very difficult, I think.
I think that shame is so interesting. I definitely struggled with being the person who cared too much or was said to have cared too much.
At one point during college, when Ella was struggling with those feelings, about that particular one night stand, she told a friend that she didn’t understand why it felt so humiliating, why she was so disappointed.
And she told me I needed to just care less. It was such bad advice. You can’t just care less. You can understand on a cognitive or logical level that oh, I think I’m a little too invested in this person or I’m expecting more than they want to offer. But it’s very difficult to shut off the part of your brain that cares. I also don’t think you should. I don’t think that we should aim for casual sex that is without care.
I think that care is hugely important in being a human being and being emotionally open and having pleasurable experiences and real connections with other people. Caring is not a bad thing. I think when you want more from someone than they are capable of offering or than they want to offer, then you need to have a conversation about boundaries and be very conscious of if you are respecting that person and vice versa. But care is not necessarily the issue. Your emotions are the issue. It’s your behavior and how you treat the people that you’re involved with.
I think young people in particular, especially young women, are taught that you have to be chill and blasé, and I was just never able to do it. That’s not my personality. That’s not what felt right to me.
I definitely wish I could go back in time sometimes and be like, “You’re allowed to have feelings, embarrassed or disappointed or excited about someone. You don’t have to act like you’re not really jazzed to see them again. You don’t have to pretend that you’re not reading their text message as soon as they send it. You don’t have to wait 20 minutes to reply.” I’ve always been the type of person who cares a lot. And I think that we need to make that less of a shameful, embarrassing thing.
That completely make sense. But how do we get to that place? Obviously, there are missing lessons along the way… Is this something we should be talking about in school? In sex ed? Between parents and kids?
It’s a good question. I think that we already have such a flawed sex education program and culture and curriculum in the US and in certain countries, there’s so much we need to fix in terms of what we teach people, particularly young people. I don’t think there’s like a silver bullet solution to helping people care about their sexual partners.
For me, I do think I learned a ton from my parents. I’m quite lucky to have learned a ton from my parents about respecting myself and respecting the people I was having sex with. I didn’t receive a lot of the messaging that other folks did about ‘sex must take place within a relationship’ or ‘you must respect people who are having sex in certain ways.’
I didn’t internalize the idea that I was less than for feeling desire and for feeling desire for people who weren’t my boyfriend or my girlfriend, but I think that I was a real outlier. And when I asked my parents, “How did you raise me like this?” They have no idea what they did right. But I do think that it stems from parents and from sex education and from pop culture. It permeates us from all angles.
I do think that there’s an opportunity for high schools and colleges to think about how are we talking about relationships with our students? How are we talking about sexuality? And we need to make sure people understand that you still deserve to give full consent, to have your boundaries respected, to have your feelings and your humanity respected outside of a relationship. That is true no matter what the sexual experience is.
I think that was the biggest gap that I saw when I was going through sex ed myself. And then when I was navigating sex on a college campus, I knew that I could say no within a relationship; I knew that I could ask somebody to treat me better within a relationship. But I didn’t know how to say that to a random hookup. I didn’t understand that I could say, “Hey, we had sex last night and you ignoring me now makes you kind of a jerk.”
I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t have a fix. I think that knowing that certain ages, though, are very vulnerable to this and are also sponges. College students are sponges. I’m so impressed by how quickly they learn and model new behavior. So I do think that that 18 to 22 window is a great moment to say let’s, let’s provide language and raise the bar and help these kids fight for better, better sex lives.
I think that’s one reason Ella’s writing is so important. She writes so beautifully and so personally about universal, yet seldom explored, topics that you can’t help but consider your own journey. I told her about an experience one of her stories brought up for me.
So I was reading your gorgeous micro memoir called “Life Ruiner.” And you write about a relationship with this person named Blake. And there’s a point where you disclose the STI that you mentioned having. And he responds in a very negative kind of insulting way. And it reminded me of an experience I had that I hadn’t even really thought much about in terms of it being some type of emotional abuse.
I had a partner, a new boyfriend, find out about who I had been sleeping with prior to him. It was an actor that was fairly well known and has this like party vibe. And so he got, I think really jealous, in hindsight, but he convinced me that I may have HIV because I had been having sex with this guy. It just threw me into this whole roller coaster. I got to the point where I went in to get tested and it was really a very vulnerable situation.
And the whole time he was like, “You know what? If you’re positive, if we’re both positive, I’m staying with you.” And I ended up feeling like I owed him something. So thank you for writing this story because even me looking way back in my life, I feel like it brought me a piece of healing and a validation that I hadn’t had.
I’m so grateful to hear that. I hear that pretty often and it makes me so happy that folks, through reading something that I’ve written, look back on an experience and see it a little differently and maybe feel a hurt that they might have buried or didn’t fully understand at the time.
I think that we have this spectrum of sexual violence or abuse within relationships. And it’s easier for us to recognize the more extreme cases, the physical violence, or the clear violation of consent. But there are all of these things that fall along that spectrum that may be harder for us to identify as causing us pain or disrespecting us.
When I look back at my life, it’s easy for me to identify those big, painful moments of conflict and being insulted and being physically hurt. But there are all these little conversations or breakups or disappointments that hurt me just as much. But I didn’t have the language to understand how they had hurt me or what that person had done wrong.
Or I felt like I didn’t, that my feelings about that experience weren’t valid, that I was overreacting, that that person didn’t mean it that way, that they’re a really good person overall.
What Ella shared there reminded me of a snippet I highlighted in Life Ruiner. She wrote:
The worst nightmare, the recurring one that followed me through my twenties and may stay with me forever, is this: [club music] “I am at a party, or a hotel bar, or a college reunion, and I bump into him while getting drinks. I realize with that same repulsive certainty that I got it all wrong and he is the man I believed him to be at the beginning. A little crass, a little unpredictable, but kind and clever and wounded. I beg him to forgive me. For what, I’m not sure.
It took me hours, if not days, upon waking to remember. His white slash of teeth. The bloom of blood and spit in my mouth. If you tell anyone I have herpes, I’ll kill you.”
It makes me really sad that there are all of these little hurts in my life and in the lives of a lot of women that I know that we, at the time, had to just push down or completely forgot, because we didn’t know how to understand them.
Much of the writing Ella is doing now explores some of those buried experiences that she had tucked away, the kind she sees differently and more clearly as time goes on.
Some of the stories involve emotional abuse, like the kind she went through with Blake. She told me that that relationship was “very tumultuous and dehumanizing and just sucked in a lot of ways.” Other times, she explores smaller moments, the kind that aren’t in the context of an abusive relationship, but still hurt and have stayed with her.
Sometimes it is the moment of a partner saying, you know, “I’m going to stay with you, even if you have x.” And you feel like you should be grateful when they say, “No matter what STI you have, I’m still gonna stay with you.” But that, in itself, is a really hurtful message because it’s saying, like, “I’m staying with you in spite of this thing,” as opposed to, “I like you and this is a part of your life. And I like you so I accept that as well.” It’s such a small language nuance, but it really. It hits you, it hits a nerve, and it stays with you.
One example is a story she wrote about recently, which she told me she was still processing.
I had a sexual experience…I don’t even know how to describe it.
I had a friend from high school who I was really close to growing up, who I always had feelings for. And for whatever reason, the timing just never worked for us. He had a girlfriend, or I was away at school. And eventually when we were in our early 20s, we were single at the same time. And he was someone who was kind of the teddy bear of the friend group. Total gentlemen, would drive you home if you got sick at a party and make sure you were okay. Just really so gracious and soft spoken and somebody I trusted quite deeply.
And we were having sex, first time we’d ever had sex, even though we kind of circled each other for years, because we’d had these mutual feelings. And I said to him, you know, “You can be a little rougher with me, if you want to,” because he was really treating me with kid gloves in this very sweet way. And I enjoyed being handled a little roughly; I liked having my hair pulled. I liked being nipped on my shoulder – like that kind of innocent stuff that when you’re 22, you think is really exciting.
But I said to him, “you can be a little rougher with me.” And we were having sex and without warning, without talking about it first, without any kind of conversation about BDSM or kink, he just slapped me in the face, in the middle of sex. Now I have the language to understand that I disassociated. I kind of left myself and was just so shocked that I felt like I’d almost been thrown out of my body, because I just was so surprised and also it hurts! When someone slaps you across the face that hurts, especially when you’re not expecting it and you’re not braced for it.
Eventually, I returned to myself, and I just pretended nothing was wrong because I knew his intention wasn’t to physically hurt me. I knew that he was someone who cared about me. But I didn’t understand how that could have happened. I blame myself. I was like, maybe I wasn’t clear enough with what I wanted. Maybe he just watched too much pornography and he internalized that as a normal thing to do. And I just, I pushed it away in my head. I pretended it never happen. I never spoke to anyone about it. I never mentioned it to him.
We wound up having sex again a few months later and it didn’t happen again, and it wound up being a perfectly pleasant experience. And we stayed friends over the years. But I just, we never, for some reason, could hold a conversation after that. Something had just changed between us.
And I wound up just distancing myself. I think because subconsciously, I was just deeply uncomfortable with what had happened but I didn’t understand… A, I didn’t understand that it was upsetting me. And B, I was just so shocked because it was such, it was so different from the way that I understood him as a person.
Years later, because of the #metoo movement, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and this whole conversation around consent and different types of sexual violations, I returned to the memory and realized that in itself was its own moment of somebody hurting me, whether or not that was his intent. And I began to understand my own really deep hurt and discomfort over that experience.
And so that language eventually helped me look back and realize this was a valid, shitty experience of trauma, and I’ve been pushing it away because I didn’t get it. And I just didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to think about him in that way. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I had been bothered by something that was, again, a moment of casual sex that shouldn’t have meant anything or hurt me in any way. But it definitely stuck with me.
Ella’s been working on an essay series in her Patreon about casual sex and different moments where casual sex can be really fulfilling or really dehumanizing. That’s when that experience came up for her, she said, as a moment that impacted her in a deep way and that still makes her very uncomfortable.
I spent some time kind of poking at the wound and looking at my old journals and trying to figure out what had happened. And even in my journals, at the time, I made light of it and said something about how “isn’t it unfortunate that all these boys absorb terrible stuff from porn?,” and then I just moved on from it and didn’t unpack my feelings. I just moved on with the story, because I couldn’t make sense of it.
So, I’m glad that I’ve had the space and the distance now to unpack it and to understand it better and also to realize that I’m not upset with him. I think that he didn’t mean it. I think if I called him and said, “Hey, can we talk about this event from many years ago,” he would be horrified to realize that it had had that impact on me but I don’t really need that.
Ella also said she doesn’t really need that. She doesn’t need to go there in any way other than understanding it through her writing. And because she shares her writing, she hears from others, especially women, who relate.
And I’ve actually heard from a bizarre amount of other women who have said like, “I had the same experience, and I didn’t know how to think about it either.” That just reminded me why I do this is I just hope that I can give other people a little bit of language and grace to understand stuff that has stuck with them as well.
Absolutely. You mentioned that casual sex can be very fulfilling or very dehumanizing. What makes for a fulfilling versus dehumanizing experience, in your opinion?
That’s such a fun question. The best casual sex I’ve had…has been with people who fully saw me as a person and were very present with me. I also find that when I look back the best casual sex experiences have been mostly sober. They haven’t been super impulsive. They’ve been experiences with people who I may not have known very well but that I was interested in beyond just their body or their reputation.
These experiences, Ella said, weren’t just about getting off or having fun.
A few months ago, she wrote an essay about one of her best casual sex experiences, which also took place during her college years. She described the experience to me like this:
I was processing a big breakup and some changes in my family. And I gathered up the nerve to text this guy from my friend group who I’d always just found incredibly attractive, and who I’d had a history class with, and we were basically study buddies.
I very boldly just invited him to come over to have sex with me. Like, didn’t try to be subtle. I was just like, “Do you want to come over and have sex?” And luckily for me, he did. And we both knew the other wasn’t interested in something serious.
He had a vague awareness of the fact that I was going through some stuff personally. I knew that he was about to leave for study abroad. So he was very much about to leave campus and go live this new chapter of his life. So we both went in with the same expectations, and we knew each other well enough that we cared about the other person, at least the bare minimum of care that you would need to bring to a one night stand to really care about that other person’s enjoyment. But it was really fun!
And he asked like, “Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do? Is there anything that you really enjoy or anything I should know?” It was the first time somebody had just asked me those questions before we had sex. And at one point, he’s like, “Do you want me to get a glass of water? I feel like I’m dehydrated. Can I get you anything from the kitchen?” It was my apartment. I was just like, “I’d love a glass of water.” But it was those little things to make sure that we were both having a really healthy experience.
And he was one of the first people I talked to after I got diagnosed with my STI, actually, because I knew that he was quite sexually active as I was. And I think I asked him about his status. And there was no judgement, when he spoke to me about it. He’s not somebody I’m a close friend with but I feel like even now, when we occasionally hang out, he’s interested in my life and what I have to say.
There’s like a core respect as humans for each other, which is my fancy way of saying you should just like the people you’re sleeping with, even if you don’t want to date them. If you’re just like, “you seem really nice, and I’m invested in you being okay, and having an enjoyable experience, too.”
I love that they were both able to embrace how much they cared. And there’s definitely pressure on guys, too – to care less, as though that makes them more “masculine.” So, I love that this guy stepped up in that way, too.
It struck me so much that the more that you were talking about these things during the experience, the more exciting and fun and sweet and fulfilling it was, which really goes against this idea that so many of us have that if we talk about the sex we’re having or going to have that somehow that makes it boring.
Yeah, I don’t know what to do about that assumption people have, because it’s so frustrating. I think people feel so much awkwardness and don’t know the right words or the right questions to ask. And I think that’s why people worry that it’ll take away the magic or the spontaneity of the moment, but I’ve been herpes positive for seven, eight years now. I don’t even remember.
I haven’t had sex without having had a conversation first, in nearly a decade as a result, and my sex life has gotten astronomically better because I have space to clear up some things before we have sex and to know that the person I’m having sex with will be respectful and is invested in my pleasure and my experience and vice versa.
In the beginning, when I just got diagnosed, I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t just walk into a bar and take someone home. But then again when I thought about how often I done that those weren’t the sexual experiences that I remember fondly. Those were experiences that were usually pretty awkward and not pleasurable because I didn’t know the person well enough to say like, “Hey, can we stop and use lube?” or “Can you not do that? That’s uncomfortable. That that feels weird.”
I think that having a conversation about sex is a better way to have sex. It makes sure that you can check in with that person, that you understand what’s going on, that you can advocate for yourself and vice versa.
If you’re uncomfortable talking about sex with someone you plan to have sex with, Ella suggests reading up on the topic and practicing. Talk to yourself in the mirror, if it helps, to get over that discomfort using certain words. And come up with questions or requests you want to bring up in advance. While you’e at it, really think about not only your boundaries—what you’d rather not do—but what your desires: what do you most want to do?
It’s a real disservice, I think, of our sex education and of our sexual culture in general that we mostly teach each other just to say no to things. That’s what you role play in an abstinence only sex education class. It’s how to say no, as opposed to how to ask questions or how to say yes or how to say maybe let’s do this, instead. We teach people how to end conversations not start them.
How true is that? I think that’s why even the word “consent” is associated with “no” and “stop,” versus “permission.” Our “nos” can be extremely important, of course, but that’s only one piece of it. Consent is a conversation.
I asked Ella about her motivation for writing Life Ruiner. On her website, she wrote that there’s “a disconnect between conversations about intimate partner violence and…sexually transmitted infections.” This story, she said, “sits neatly in that chasm.”
When I was diagnosed with an STI, I was in a relationship that was already pretty unhealthy, although I didn’t have the maturity to recognize that yet. And when I was diagnosed, and then when my partner was diagnosed, it very quickly became emotionally abusive, because the STI wound up being a justification for treating me then less of a human. I became a slut. I became someone who was dangerous, who had ruined his life. The STI dehumanized me in his eyes, and I think that there are so many stereotypes about the type of person that gets an STI—that we are cheaters, that we are disloyal, unfaithful, irresponsible. All of those STIs underpin that belief that people with STIs are not worth being treated well in relationships.
In my experience as an advocate for people with herpes, and just in my reading as someone who’s really interested in relationship dynamics and abuse, I find that STIs pop up over and over again, even though that’s not usually a connection that’s made directly. I don’t have scientific proof of this but in my knowledge, people with STIs are more likely to be treated disrespectfully by their partners.
Like we were talking about, there’s the idea that you should be grateful that I’m willing to be with you, even though you have an STI. It can become a bargaining chip in that way.
You’re also maybe more likely to get an STI from someone who already would have been abusive or been a less respectful partner, because they care less about your body and about your health and about your experience. They’re not going to be the most above board about their status. They’re not going to talk to you about what prevention methods should we use, etc. There’s research to show that people with HIV, in particular, are vulnerable to domestic violence.
It’s super common when you look at the actual research, but I didn’t really make the connection that my STI made me more vulnerable for abuse and that I was more likely to get an STI within an abusive relationship for a very long time.
The more Ella learns about domestic and intimate partner violence, the more she sees STIs pop up in people’s experiences, especially for young women who’ve endured abuse.
I also read a study that showed that gay and bisexual men who report having had unprotected anal sex are also more likely to report being abused. And given that men are even less encouraged to speak up about abuse than women, those scenarios, too, are probably a lot more common that we realize.
The trend Ella picked up on, of women who acquire an STI from someone who’s emotionally or physically abusive, prompted her to write Life Ruiner.
That really disturbed me, when I began to hear those stories and see those patterns. It helped me understand my own experience better as well. I’m not a scientific researcher. I’m not a capital A advocate. I don’t have much of a legislation background at all. But I can write. I can tell stories.
So, I decided to take a lot of the essays I’d been kind of chipping away at over the years and combine them into a micro memoir about getting diagnosed, about the relationship I was in, about the way that the STI impacted our mental health for both of us and how, in the end, we did wind up breaking up, but the thing that broke us up in the end was I found out he might have been exposing other women as well to his STI.
The process of writing and sharing these essays has been deeply fulfilling for Ella, and challenging in some ways.
It’s been very healing to finally tell that story and to have it be not a secret that I’ve carried around for many years. It’s also been really sad to hear from folks and see just how common that experience is and how it’s still just not talked about. My micro memoir is one of very few stories out there that delves into all those nuances for folks.
So I hope it’ll help other people understand. I’m hoping that college students in particular will read it because it’s very much a story about being a 20-year-old in love with a bad person. But I’m glad that I did it. And I hope that it helps people connect all those dots.
I asked Ella to share any words of advice that have helped her over the years. If you’re struggling with shame related to casual sex or your feelings about those experiences, or you’re not being treated well in a relationship, you may want to hold what she said here close:
Yeah, I had a friend who was very wise, who once gave me the advice that we deserve nice things, which is really, really simple, and it can apply in many ways, but I repeat that to myself a lot. We deserve nice things.
You deserve someone who treats you well. You deserve to be texted back. You deserve to have your feelings respected and considered. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what choices you’ve made in life. It doesn’t matter what illness you’re living with or what traumatic experience you’re healing from. You deserve nice things. You deserve someone who’s kind to you.
You don’t have to negotiate or bargain. You should never say to yourself, oh, it’s okay that they’re not being 100% perfect or that they’ve done this hurtful thing because this is the baggage I’m bringing to the relationship. That’s irrelevant. There’s no scorecard. There’s no budget to balance of the bullshit you bring to the relationship and how shitty they’re allowed to treat you as a result.
It doesn’t matter if your parents are divorced and so you have some issues around that. It doesn’t matter if you have an STI. It just doesn’t matter. You deserve to be treated well. You deserve nice things, period. End of story. Don’t let anything that you feel shame about become a justification for other people to hurt you, in your mind.
[a few bars of upbeat, acoustic music]
To learn more from Ella and read her micro memoir, Life Ruiner, join her Patreon community at patreon.com/brosandprose. She typically shares one exclusive essay per months there. She also hosts a monthly discussion thread and gives away fun goodies like sticker packs and postcards about things that can be tough to talk about, such as herpes, mental health and burnout.
If you’re living with abuse from a partner, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800.799.SAFE (7233).
Stream the full episode, which includes Dr. Megan Fleming’s thoughts on what to do when you’re falling for your friends-with-benefits pal, above or on your favorite podcast app! For more Girl Boner fun and to support the show, join me on Patreon at patreon.com/girlboner.