There are few moments in life more heart-stopping than realizing that there is something not right in your panties. A close second are the frantic Google searches you conduct with one shaking hand while aiming a mirror at your crotch with the other.
I was on the toilet when I first felt the strange patches of raised skin. Because they weren’t painful, the alarm took a moment to register. But when I got a closer look at the disturbance — bumpy white growths around the opening of my vagina — I immediately began to cry.
They’re called genital warts because that’s what they look like. I held out hope that I had some kind of simple, unshameful infection that could be cleared up with antibiotics until my gynecologist uttered the phrase. If I hadn’t already felt like retching, that truly disgusting combination of words probably would have done it.
Genital warts are created by a strain of the human papillomavirus, which most women know as HPV. The good news is that the strain that causes warts is not one of the strains that causes cervical cancer. The bad news is that there is no good news when your crotch is covered with warts.
I felt dirty and utterly tainted, and only the way my gynecologist treated me with complete normalcy kept me from losing it entirely. She assured me that warts are very common (in fact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, affecting 50 percent of sexually active adults) and treatable through the application of a topical cream. The warts, she warned me, often recur a few times before the immune system begins to effectively fight them off.
She was right to be comforting. The truth is that viruses like non-cancer-causing HPV and herpes are not the worst thing that can happen to you. They’re unpleasant-looking but relatively harmless — you’re not going to die any sooner because you have them. For some, they are painful and annoying, but many people never even get outbreaks or have only one initial outbreak that never comes back. In the case of HPV, there is strong evidence that the body eventually fights off the infection entirely within two years of outbreak. But the stigma and shame of contracting an STI had done their job – at the moment of diagnosis, I felt like my life was over.
HPV can be spread from skin-to-skin contact even while using a condom. That is probably not how I got it. Like a lot of 20-something women, I was not always vigilant with their use. I always intended to use them, nearly always suggested we should, but only sometimes insisted that we do.
When people write about their sex lives publicly, they almost always seem to adhere to the perfect health-class standards of sexual safety. I don’t know who these saintly men and women are, however, because studies consistently show that use of condoms is on the decline, especially among a younger generation.
Well, let me be honest with you — I am not a saint. I have, from time to time, made stupid sexual choices, whether it was going home with a strange man who totally looks like a normal guy, or being too timid to insist on making the right choices to protect my health. But they’re not unusual choices, and pretending that they are only makes the majority of the population feel unrealistically safe from sexual disease. After all, if we believe that the folks who are getting these diseases were behaving in incredibly rare and risky ways, then the threat doesn’t really apply to us.
Since the infection can have an incubation period of weeks, months or even years, a time-span in which I had engaged in more than one one-night stand and a few extended but casual relationships, I wasn’t exactly sure when or from whom I had gotten it.
Nor was there anyone to be angry with. There is no test for HPV, and often no symptoms, meaning that some of you who are reading this almost certainly have the exact same virus I do. Whoever gave it to me could just as easily have had no idea they were carrying it.
Shaming people for not being perfect doesn’t reduce STD rates; it only builds up a wall of secrecy that makes them less likely to disclose their status. Lots of people develop diabetes through their own poor lifestyle choices, but you rarely find one too ashamed to cop to having it.
Although it was similar to the other 23-year-old women I knew, my lifestyle may not have been the norm. But I can guarantee that anyone who has ever made one bad choice about sex could easily have ended up in the same stirrups I did.
Sadly, it usually takes an experience like mine to drive that point home. The good news, for the sizable percentage of women who will one day contract an STI, is that my life was not over. Today I have a partner who either never contracted the virus from me or has no outward symptoms, and after the first two, I have been outbreak-free for years. I eventually felt normal again, even sexy.
I wish I could say I also feel comfortable enough with my experience to come out of the STD closet. Maybe someday I will. But to the other six million people who will become newly infected with HPV this year, I’m out here, all tainted and imperfect. And I’m not judging you.