Shelley Taylor believes in safe and consensual spaces when it comes to sex. The owner of Venus Envy in Ottawa has made a career out of educating people about sex and sexuality.
“We didn’t have the term ‘sex positivity’ when I started in 1998,” she says.
That was the year Taylor opened her first Venus Envy location, in Halifax.
“I felt that having a space that was welcoming, friendly and really open about sex and pleasure would be a really positive thing to bring into the world.”
Now, Taylor has created a virtual safe space, a blog on a subject that has marked her life: herpes.
Called Pass the Herpes, the site is an ongoing collection of stories, personal anecdotes and all kinds of information about herpes. Taylor herself was diagnosed at 18 and has been dealing with the stigma that surrounds it for a long time.
“For many years I felt damaged, dirty and had a lot of shame about telling people I had herpes,” she says. “Consider that there’s almost no shame in having the exact same virus on your face, but when it’s on your genitals, it’s something completely different in how we relate to our bodies and how others relate to us.”
For years, Taylor led workshops on sex, many of them dealing with sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including herpes.
“I try to make it sound really normal. Like, ‘Hey, I’m Shelley, and I have a cold,” she says. “Here’s how you can minimize the risks of getting a cold and passing it on to others. And remember, you’re not alone and it’s manageable.”
Taylor says people often come up to her and thank her for her disclosure, because they have no one else to discuss it with. When she started Pass the Herpes, it was no different. Since its creation, Taylor has received emails and messages from people thanking her for giving them a place to talk without judgment. She says that although she has spoken openly about her situation for years now, almost every time she does, she feels a twinge of anxiety. Creating this blog was a way for her to face that feeling head on.
“I feel like I wasted many years worrying about my body and that people would think I was disgusting,” she says. “I wanted to bring the topic out into the open in some small way to perhaps keep others from feeling crappy about something they have little control over.”
Although Taylor is the creator of the blog, she is not its only voice.
“[It’s] more like a public forum than a blog,” she points out. “I think it’s really valuable to have a place where lots of voices and experiences can be heard.”
One post on the site, written by “C,” portrays C’s own story around disclosure: “If it’s on the table from the beginning, everybody knows what they’re dealing with. They can appreciate my honesty, ask questions and assess the risk for themselves, and I can assess their character by their response. So far that’s what’s working for me.”
Taylor agrees that talking about it is one of the best ways to remove the shame and fear around herpes.
“I understand that it’s hard to hear that the person you want to get it on with has an infection that you might be at risk of getting,” she says. “But I also think that by telling you in advance, they’re being responsible and caring and should be treated with gentleness, even if you make the decision that it’s not a risk you want to take in that moment.”