This election cycle has seen the candidates make their fair share of outrageous remarks. Actually, "outrageous" may not cut it. Often, they're crude, bombastic, xenophobic, and/or misogynistic in a way that would disqualify these candidates from almost any other professional endeavor — except the highest office in the land, apparently. Between jabs about "small hands" (and counter comments defending their genital size) and judgments about eating habits, few things can leave a presidential candidate's mouth and surprise me. However, Ted Cruz's Donald Trump "venereal disease" attack gave me pause.
During a news conference in Indiana on Tuesday, the day Hoosiers head to the poll for their primary, Cruz ripped into Trump for, among other things, his sexual behavior:
He’s proud of being a serial philanderer. I want everyone to think about your teenage kids. The president … describes his battles with venereal disease as his ‘own personal Vietnam’. That’s a quote, by the way.
It's not exactly a quote. In 1997, Trump boasted about his sex life to Howard Stern and his lack of STD's. He told Stern, “I’ve been so lucky in terms of that whole world. It is a dangerous world out there — it’s scary, like Vietnam. Sort of like the Vietnam era. It is my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave solider.”
Now, Cruz's attack didn't exactly shock me for its crassness, per se. As I mentioned, this election has seen an ample array of sex (and bathroom) related attacks from the Donald alone. It was more that it wasn't the run-of-the-mill moralizing towards sex that politicians do so well when they want to climb on their high horse. There was an ugly nuance, an extra layer of not stigmatizing just sex, but STDs. It wasn't just Trump being a "serial philanderer" but "his battle with venereal disease."
This problem of STD stigma is something I've contemplated outside the realm of politics, so I reached out to an expert on this topic — activist and writer Ella Dawson, who has discussed her genital herpes diagnosis and the stigma she has faced quite openly.
"I don't know who is a bigger dick in this situation: Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. I find the existence of both of them as humans offensive," Dawson tells me in an email.
Dawson says she is, ultimately, more bothered by the initial remarks Trump made to Stern. "At the end of the day, Trump's original comments were gross ... His jokes to Stern played on STI stigma in a fascinating way: he reaffirmed the myth that STIs are the result of reckless, casual sex, and then he capitalized on that stereotype to make himself look like a player."
Dawson notes that there's a double standard in this joking: "Only a man can get away with a joke like that — women are slut-shamed for being even remotely sexual, and for us to talk about having STIs, or encountering STIs, is deeply socially unacceptable. Trump is the stereotype those of us who live with STIs fight against: We're not irresponsible, unfaithful, self-obsessed narcissists. We're your friends and co-workers."
Of the Texas senator, Dawson says, "I can't stand Cruz, but I don't take issue with him repeating back Trump's horrifying comments .... Go ahead and make Trump look terrible, Cruz. But let's try to leave STIs out of it."
And Dawson's words of wisdom for the Donald? "Having an STI isn't a reflection of your character, and according to statistics, we're the real silent majority here," she says. "Also, hate to break it to Trump, but he probably does have an STI. Most of us do."