Jenelle Marie is the founder of The STD Project and a spokesperson for Positive Singles, which, with 800,000 members, is the world's largest online-dating platform for individuals with STDs. Marie became an advocate for STD awareness because her own diagnosis as a teen left her wondering whether her love life would be cut short. Positive Singles became her support network, giving her a chance to meet other STD-positives and get back into the dating game.
You became involved with Positive Singles after being diagnosed with an STD. How did your diagnosis change you?
"I’ve learned STDs don’t have a prejudice and are not subjective; they are not limited to certain types of people, classes, races, etc. In that way, having an STD has changed me for the better, as I'm much more open-minded, educated, and mindful than I was as a teenager when I contracted HSV [herpes simplex virus]."
Do people still assume that STDs are an outcome of promiscuity?
"That's one of the most common misconceptions we hear at The STD Project. The number of partners someone has had is only one of the many components of risk. We work with folks who've contracted an STD after having only one partner — and others who've had numerous partners and have never contracted an STD, because they've practiced comprehensive safer sex consistently."
"I've never had anyone reject me because of my status. Even if/when that does happen...being rejected because of your STD status has nothing to do with the quality of your character. It just means the person you were interested in wasn't willing to consider the risk at that time. Often, once someone has taken the time to get to know a person and is interested in him or her beyond just a sexual encounter, [they may be more] willing to consider that risk."
Do you have advice for STD-positive people on how and when to reveal their status if they are in a new relationship?
"Yes. We talk about 'When to Tell Someone', 'How to Tell Someone', and 'Should I Tell Someone' on our website. In short, though, you should tell a partner before putting him or her at risk. You should notify anyone who may have been exposed (you can do so anonymously). When telling potential partners, our advice can be summarized like this: tell them in person in a calm environment; be honest about your experiences; be positive about yourself and your STD; let them ask questions; share the facts and figures, and point out some good resources; let them have some alone time to do their own research and decide how they would like to proceed; and don’t take their decision personally."
What led you to establish the STD project, and what progress have you seen in lifting the stigma surrounding STDs?
"I established The STD Project as a result of my personal experiences. There was a time when I was shamed by my peers, by the medical practitioner who diagnosed me, and by others… While the stigma is immense, I have seen progress, both in the amount of people I've been able to help and in the responses to the information and resources we provide. In talking about my experiences publicly, I've had countless conversations that have changed the way people perceive folks with an STD."
"While our members remain anonymous until they decide to meet in person…they are still able to share things about themselves: their interests, activities, experiences, opinions — all of the types of things that define a person and a person's character. Our platform also offers a live chat room…and a personal blog option. So, their anonymity doesn't hold them back from meeting someone with whom they're compatible."
Communicating in any relationship is difficult. Communicating without seeing, hearing, or getting other non-verbal cues is even tougher. How do Positive Singles members overcome this hurdle?
"Many members do share photos in their profiles, and others share photos once they've gotten to know someone on the site. So, most folks get to see what a potential interest looks like. The hurdle that is relevant here is that someone has to take a little more time to communicate in writing before getting the opportunity to meet."
What are some ways that Positive Singles' online counselors help members?
"We answer questions about risk and transmission, dating advice, treatment — you name it. This way, our members receive advice they trust [and are] able to enter back into the dating world responsibly."
Positive Singles has a lot of success stories from people who have found long-term (even lifelong) relationships on the site. What do you think has made it so successful?
"The P.S. platform, while being an online dating site for people with STDs, is really more than that. It's a community where people with STDs can find love, advice, friendship, and support. It's a safe space. That's why it's had such continued success and growth."