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On July 30th, the HANDS (Herpes Activists Networking to Dismantle Stigma) Steering Committee noticed that Wildflower Sex (WF), collaborated with My Boyfriend Has Herpes (MBHH) to make social media visuals and a blog post titled, “Sex with Herpes.” As we read through the blog post and continued to follow the Instagram comments, we quickly realized there were significant stigmatizing errors and gaping medical inaccuracies throughout. We believed this presented an opportunity to offer our suggestions, guidance, and expertise. While HANDS does not have the resources to draw attention to inaccuracies everywhere they exist online, due to the giant reach of both accounts, we hoped to reduce harm while shedding light on HANDS as a trusted resource.
Our Message to MBHH and WF:
On behalf of the Herpes Activists Networking to Dismantle Stigma, affectionately known as HANDS, we would like to express how exciting it was to see more folx collaborating and speaking openly about herpes. Thank you for using your voice and your platform to uplift an issue that affects SO MANY people! Herpes does not deserve the stigma it receives, and it is clear that you support and amplify that message!!! Your presence is so appreciated by all of us at HANDS, in addition to the thousands of individuals with herpes who are absorbing such an incredibly inclusive blog post. Seriously, hats off to you both for involving intersectional issues in the images–the world needs more of your magic.
The HANDS leadership team did notice a few inaccuracies that we’d love to clarify if you are open to our feedback? Our goal with this message is to bring your awareness to more updated sexual health statistics with regard to herpes. In the past, we’ve discussed how grateful we each feel as people who are herpes positive to know that advocacy is taking place all around the social media-sphere, as well as how concerned we are about spreading the word and STIgma-smashing in the age of fake news. With the publishing of this article, it felt like an opportunity to make sure our sex-positive community does not perpetuate any misinformation.
We understand that while it’s clear you care about this topic and were well-intentioned, there are still many spaces on the internet that are not reliable. As a network filled with diverse experts and advocates, we would love to serve as a resource to you – @myboyfriendhasherpes and @wildflowersex – for ensuring that readers, followers, and all those whom you influence can trust the information you’re sharing. It is our hope that you will consider our request and allow us to enter the space you have created together by providing you with suggested edits backed by the most current data from our entrusted specialists.
If you are open to receiving clarifications on some of the information presented, we would love to share them with you!
HANDS Steering Committee
Response from WF:
Thank you for reaching out. Sure! Though we had our piece reviewed and edited by various doctors and health care providers before publishing, we are always open to hearing criticisms and considering possible changes. We know that information around herpes can be differing, even between health care professionals, but we still want to be as accurate as possible.
We’ve excluding Momo & Felix from this email as they were paid for the images and had no part in creating the written content. We don’t want to have to bug them after their work has already been completed.
Wild Flower Team
HANDS immediately set out to edit their post. However, the time spent reviewing the material and making suggested edits totaled over five hours between two of our team members (Jenelle Marie Pierce, who is The STI Project’s Executive Director, the Founder of HANDS and an active member of 6 STI/STD Organizations with over 7+ years of experience in STI/STD research, education and advocacy, and Emily L. Depasse, who is a Sexologist, Sex Educator, and future Sex Therapist, currently completing her MSW and MEd in Human Sexuality Studies at Widener, popularly known as SexELDucation on Instagram and Twitter), and it became clear that there were too many discrepancies to salvage the post.
Screenshots showcasing the extent of the labor our experts put into adjusting the language and correcting inaccuracies.
During the time spent corresponding with WF and making suggested edits to the “Sex with Herpes” post, Ev’Yan Whitney’s article “Dildon’t Disrespect Black Femmes: Our Personal Experiences With Wild Flower Sex Shop” was published on Medium.
Without the knowledge that the owners/operators of WF used the visibility of marginalized and vulnerable populations to their advantage, we may have never really understood why reading the “Sex With Herpes” blog post felt…off. HANDS could not deduce the intention behind the creation of their piece, because there was neither a clear, energetic voice behind the writing nor accurate data to support the seemingly positive intent of the article as a tool to destigmatize herpes. In addition, we were surprised to learn that there were no sexual health experts consulted, cited, or linked. This is especially surprising as the blog post claims itself to be informationally and educationally-oriented. Although WF stated that the article was edited by “various doctors and health care providers,” none of those doctors or providers were mentioned by name or cited within the article itself. It is common knowledge among sexuality professionals that most medical professionals receive less than ten hours total of human sexuality education throughout their graduate programs – yet these folks are often cited as professionals in a subject matter they know little about. When further narrowing human sexuality to a sub-topic, like STIs/STDs, these medical professionals typically know even less, and what they can recall from their limited, formal education is dated and/or stigmatized.
Outside of the article itself, HANDS was also concerned that the comments on WF’s Instagram post were regulated by folx who were not specialists in sexual health as it relates to STI education, wellness, and destigmatization. Simply, both the blog post and corresponding comments to readers contained inaccuracies and further stigmatized herpes. For instance: herpes is not transmitted from surfaces. Nor is it commonly transmitted in schools; there is no data to support that claim.
The Steering Committee then decided to reach back out to MBHH and WF, choosing to include all parties who were originally involved in the creation of the “Sex With Herpes” blog post for the sake of full transparency and continued education efforts. We then requested that WF remove the “Sex With Herpes” blog post and Instagram post in its entirety while issuing a statement to their followers. When we received no response, we sent a follow-up message, and we have received no response to either message since.
HANDS believes that all who desire to be a part of the sex-positive community, whether as educators or students, deserve a space and a voice. We also believe it is each community member’s responsibility to cultivate awareness around their privileges and strengths and to understand how that intersection adds to the overall power of their presence in the world. Further, we believe that everyone who holds space within the community must be held accountable for transgressions. HANDS stands with Ev’Yan, Ashleigh, Karmenife, La’Shaunae, Venus Cuffs, Cameron, and anyone else who didn’t feel safe coming forward. In addition to the transgressions made against these Black femmes, we would like to expand the conversation as it relates to inaccuracies in WF’s content and the damage this misinformation costs.
The HANDS Leadership team began its correspondence with WF under the assumption that this would be a simple transaction consisting of just a few edits. HANDS now knows that WF has not been appropriately employing its network to provide opportunities that uplift the marginalized populations and voices that it claims to support. This includes the Black femmes whose representation did not achieve mutual beneficiality, along with the distinct lack of review and representation by experienced herpes advocates and educators when it mattered most. Although MBHH has been compensated for their art, it is now clear that WF’s intentions in publishing the “Sex with Herpes” article were not to educate, raise awareness, or destigmatize herpes stigma, but instead were to gain followers from another vulnerable population for WF’s personal/brand gain.
Consequently, HANDS cannot support Wildflower Sex as an educational resource.
Timeline of Events:
- July 30th: noticed WF/MBHH collaboration, read blog post and corresponding comments, recognized both contained harmful language and unsupported data
- July 31st: messaged MBHH and WF (through email and Instagram messages) to inform them of our interest in suggesting edits, received a response from WF immediately, WF agreed to consider our feedback
- August 1st: “DilDON’T Disrespect Black Femmes” article published on Medium indicating harm by WF to another marginalized community
- August 3rd: messaged WF (through email and Instagram messages) asking them to remove the “Sex with Herpes” article and to issue a statement, HANDS stated that while we didn’t want to center ourselves above the Black Femme community, HANDS would be happy to work with WF to write a new herpes article after they’d addressed the other communities in need of reparations, received NO response from WF but messages were shown as “seen” on Instagram
- August 6th: messaged WF again (through email and Instagram messages) asking if they had considered removing the post and issuing a statement, received NO response from WF but messages were shown as “seen” on Instagram
- August 10th: received response from MBHH, MBHH stated they were not involved in the article’s written content, confirmed they were commissioned and paid for their artwork and WF now had full rights to their illustrations
While the lack of response from WF is disappointing, because harm continues while as article remains published, there are two larger issues at hand: first, the use of marginalized communities to advance marketing campaigns and pad bottom lines, and second, the plethora of problematic and inaccurate content that exists online about herpes, typically under the guise of educating and destigmatizing. Often, media is published with the intent to help our community, other marginalized communities, and/or the greater sexual health community, but it is done without citing sources, consulting experts, or considering stigma, and the resulting effect is far more harm than good. The MBHH and WF collaboration is just one of thousands of examples of this. As a result, we’ve created shareable media that can help point companies, organizations, journalists, and the public in the direction of HANDS’ trusted resources.
How You Can Help:
- Share the attached social media images with a link to our post, ask your followers to sign up for our newsletter, and include a personal statement as this relates to your work, services, and resources
- Share the attached social media images with a link to our post, and ask your followers to sign up for our newsletter
- Share the attached social media images, and ask your followers to sign up for our newsletter
- Share the attached social media images