I have HPV. Or, to be more accurate, I was diagnosed with HPV when I was 19 and found a little bump on my vulva in an area where there was no chance it could be an ingrown hair. The nurse at the health clinic at my college put acid on it, watched while it turned white, and told me it was definitely a wart. That was the one and only “outbreak” I’ve ever had, but it was enough for me to say, sure, I have HPV. And I’m not shy about telling people that.
But I wasn’t always this chill about it. When I was diagnosed, I basically lost it. I fell right down the slut-shaming hole. I told myself that was “what I get” for sleeping around, and cycled through the usual you can never have sex again/HPV doesn’t go away/your vagina is going to be covered in hideous warts/YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON thoughts that so many of us go through when we get an STI diagnosis. Mid-freak out, I called a close friend. “Oh yeah, I have it, too,” she said. I got the same response from a female family member. And that’s when I calmed down and realized — HPV isn’t a big deal.
Or, at least, the type of HPV I have isn’t a big deal. What I didn’t know at the time of diagnosis — but learned with a little Googling and had reinforced since, in my training as a sex educator — is that the strains of HPV that cause warts don’t have any other negative health effects. Specifically, if you have a strain of HPV that causes warts, it won’t cause cancer. And the strains that cause cancer don’t cause warts. So while the kind that I was diagnosed with has a visible component, it’s really no more annoying than the occasional pimple. And I’ve had way more pimples since I was 19 than I’ve had warts.
The other thing I’ve realized about HPV is that it’s ridiculously common. Because HPV is a skin-to-skin STI, there’s no way to protect 100 percent against it, other than never touching another human being again. Also, most people with penises carry the virus, but don’t show any symptoms — and can still spread it. So there’s no way for them to know if they have it and no way for the people who are sleeping with them to know, either. As a result of all of these factors, the CDC estimates that anyone not vaccinated against HPV will have it at some point in their lives.
Did you catch that? I’m going to repeat it, really loudly, just in case: the CDC says that anyone who is not vaccinated against HPV will have it at some points in their lives.
And here’s another fun fact: Contrary to the popular belief that HPV “never goes away,” many people actually clear the virus. That’s especially true for young people — which is the group in which the virus shows up most frequently — who get it. It’s also why the CDC doesn’t say “everyone has HPV” but that everyone who isn’t vaccinated “will get HPV at some time in their life.” So even though I was diagnosed with HPV when I was 19, I don’t necessarily have it now, at 31. Does that mean I for sure don’t? Nope. Does that mean I for sure don’t carry other strains of the virus, including the cancer-causing ones? Nope. And that’s why I go regularly for Pap tests, which are a great method of early detection of irregular cells caused by HPV that can morph into cervical cancer. And also another reason why I honestly DGAF about my HPV status.
So if everyone will get it at some point or another, why do we still freak out about it? The answer is simultaneously really simple and really complicated: STI stigma. STI stigma is the overblown fear and shame so many of us carry about STIs. It’s the idea that getting an STI somehow means a person is “dirty” or "immoral" or a “slut.” It’s the idea that an STI is somehow worse than any other illness that one human picks up from another human. And you know why so many of us believe that? Because our culture teaches us that sex — especially for pleasure or outside of heterosexual marriage — is wrong.
With that in mind, my challenge to you is this. Ask yourself: Do I think sex outside of heterosexual marriage is wrong? Do I think sex for pleasure is wrong? Do I think people who have that kind of sex are bad? If the answer is yes, then you will probably continue thinking that people with STIs are dirty or immoral. And while I disagree with you, that’s your choice.
But if the answer is no, then I ask you: What makes an STI so much more morally wrong than any other illness? Nothing. And when you think about it that way, STI stigma and freaking out about an STI diagnosis — the way I did when I was 19 — just doesn’t make any logical sense. I don’t beat myself up when I get a cold, so why would I beat myself up for getting HPV? In both cases, there are things I could have done to be “safer” and protect myself against the virus but, hey, life happens.
So, yeah, I tell everyone I have HPV. Because, ultimately, it’s not a big deal, and because talking about it can help to eliminate some of that stigma. I also carry many forms of the common cold virus. Want to talk about that, too?
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