This month for Between The Sheets, we spoke with Emily Depasse, a sexuality educator who has become a force to be reckoned when it comes to uprooting the existing narratives around sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Emily, through her writing, activism, digital media, and podcast appearances, has long been pioneering much-needed conversations around STI’s that aim to remove shame and stigma, normalize their existence, and to support folks navigating sex and dating with a positive STI diagnosis. She is a prolific writer, a proud Pisces, who feels her feelings saliently and vividly, and articulates them in beautiful, insightful ways that strike you with emotion.
When she’s not pouring her soul onto the page, she’s creating resources for navigating STI diagnosis and disclosures, she’s critiquing the harmful media coverage of STI statistics, she’s uplifting the voices of other educators, or she’s blessing us with precious, much appreciated Celine content. Most recently Emily released a one-of-a-kind resource, the Resilience Deck, an exquisite deck of affirmation cards, designed specifically for people navigating sexuality and pleasure after a positive STI diagnosis.
In the interview, Emily talks with us about navigating all different kinds of difficult conversations, the necessity of dismantling STI stigma, and how she finds herself evolving through a significant and challenging breakup.
Hi Emily! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a sexologist, sex educator, and future sex therapist redefining the narratives around STI’s, relationships, and the childfree life. I received my BA in Gender and Sexuality Studies and am working toward my MSW and MEd in Human Sexuality at Widener University on the sex therapy track.
Recently I released the Resilience Affirmation Deck, the world’s first and only tangible tool designed for unlearning STI stigma and shame. I spent nearly two years crafting the affirmations and designing an experience for those working to reclaim their identity after a positive STI diagnosis. My hope is that these affirmations one day accompany or replace pamphlets upon diagnosis, as well as occupy sex education and therapy offices across the globe.
How and why are you working to redefine the narratives around herpes and STI stigma? How has social media impacted this?
I never realized the necessity of dismantling STI stigma until my own genital herpes diagnosis in July 2015. Despite an undergraduate background in human sexuality, I felt tainted by my diagnosis. I felt that I should’ve known better. That one day, in my mind, set back my graduate application, my career, my ability to love and to be loved, and more importantly, to be seen as human.
The loss of self that I experienced in the six months that followed my diagnosis motivated me to share my experience as it related to both my internalization and unlearning of STI stigma. It started with publicizing my diagnosis on a Facebook status a few days after Christmas. The surprisingly overwhelming response elicited from that disclosure served as a catalyst for my blog and future writing.
My work continues to grow and evolve alongside the community and space I’ve created online, namely through Instagram as @sexelducation. I am continually humbled by the growth, consistency, and conversation among those who unlearn and shatter STI stigma in this space. While I’m unsure if STI stigma will ever be eradicated during my lifetime, the response amongst followers, journalists, and colleagues gives me hope that it’s a conversation that a growing number of folks are willing to engage in.
How has your public disclosure helped you in your journey of self-love and acceptance?
I think the most progressive piece of my public disclosure is its growing reach and resonance with so many others. Publicizing my diagnosis is often misconstrued as an act of bravery, but the term ‘brave’ never quite sat well with me. That’s when I started replacing ‘brave’ with ‘resilience.’ Resilience, to me, is harnessing inner strength after a hardship or obstacle and returning to a more empowered space. For me, my public disclosure supported my resilience and furthered the appreciation and love I hold for myself.
What advice do you have for someone who has recently tested positive for an STI and are feeling disconnected from their sexuality?
I would definitely recommend that they look into my Resilience Deck, as it serves this exact purpose! Below are the two pieces of advice I’d want to communicate:
- Don’t settle for anything less than you deserve. Whether that’s a relationship, a sexual partner, or a career. You are worthy of the pleasure you seek, and your dreams and aspirations are just as attainable as they were before you received your diagnosis. Your life is still worth living.
- This diagnosis does not define you. Only you are capable of defining yourself and who you know yourself to be. And I know you are so much more than what the stigma might have you believe. Stigma might creep its way into the nooks and crannies of your mind, especially in moments when we question our self-worth but know that it doesn’t have to reside in permanence.
You’re an impassioned writer, and your words have a way of moving and inspiring others. What inspires you to write?
Writing has been one of my gifts from a very young age. My heart, my feelings. My writing speaks to transformation and turning points within myself. I want to explore the thoughts that I’m not supposed to vocalize, like the desperation and longing in showing up to a past lover’s house, unannounced to proclaim my love when they lived three hours away. I want to talk about darkness and the things I’m not supposed to say, like, “I’m having an outbreak and this is what’s arising,” or “yes, I am STI positive and still have pleasurable sexual experiences, here’s how you can, too.”
I want to explore the vulnerabilities in human connection as it relates to sexuality, relationships, and the heart, somehow finding meaning to articulate the most indescribable events or emotions and have someone say, “This resonates.”
You’re also a self-described 'textbook Pisces'. In what ways do you think your emotionality has positively impacted your sexuality?
My emotions move me into spaces of truth as it relates to pleasure. I think my herpes diagnosis propelled me into being more open and honest with my partners. It’s not that honesty was never present, but I began standing up for my desires and communicating what I needed, rather than allowing my partners to assume my needs.
What does self-care mean to you and how do you practice it in your life?
Between graduate studies, internship, business, and full-time job, I am an unusually busy human. In order to show up fully in these spaces, establishing and maintaining boundaries are integral to my self-care. Recently, I’ve started taking time away from my Instagram account on weekends to preserve space for myself and participate more fully in my life. Aside from social media, much of my self-care is scheduled, and some folks might consider my self-care as ‘boring.’ Making sure my meals are prepared for the week, ensuring I devote enough time to sleep--especially if emotions are running high, and making time for movement--whether that’s yoga or lifting a barbell. Sundays are my only “free” days, and I typically spend them in my apartment snuggling my cat, Céline. I’m also a big fan of lavender Epsom salt baths, binge-watching old episodes of Law and Order: SVU, and lighting different sized and scented candles when I’m winding down.
What or who is inspiring you right now personally and professionally?
Continuing the integration of my emotions and vulnerability into my work, I’m motivated by my own loss. I am working through a breakup, acceptance, and mourning both the relationship, as well as the person I thought I knew and the future I wish we had. Writing is a form of healing for me. Some of my most impactful, transformational pieces come from the depth that I think I’m unable to describe with words until I put pen to paper, heart to ink. This person’s departure from my life sits alongside ten years of conflicted emotions, rejection, deep affection, and now, reflection. I’m finally in a space where I am ready to explore our history through writing and share what I know to be my truth. While I’ve written about past lovers and relationships in articles, this is my novel.
What or who is inspiring you sexually?
My breakup is really impacting my sexuality and that expression right now. I’m in a very deep, emotional space of loss. For me, that typically means I connect with my intimacy on a more emotional, than physical, level. I’m going inward and sorting through different phases of the sexual self I’ve developed since college and the idiosyncrasies that come along with each of those selves. My sexuality has always been present and palpable, but its appearance and expression is more likely to be unveiled through my writing than through physical connection. I’m working through my evolution to the next self.
Any favorite picks from the shop?
You can follow Emily for daily content at Instagram & Twitter at @SexELDucation. Read her published work here; from thoughtful reported pieces about STIs to soul-stirring personal narratives about her relationships and diagnosis.
Head photo credit: @quartermoonco