If you have sex with 20 people, you will get genital warts. At least, that is how I framed it to my friends. My pillows had seen more than a few DIY haircuts when I saw something downtown, too: bumps. I knew it was an STI. Genital warts, to be honest, but I wasn’t ready to be. Maybe it’s razor burn? I thought, instead of facing facts. Or just ingrown hairs? Maybe if I grew out a ‘70s bush it will go away?
Yeah, it didn’t.
”It took a month or two of telling myself “that’s not what it is!” before I finally went to my family doctor, knowing that, yes, I had warts. I didn’t want to think that I could get an STI—it was that whole “but it can’t happen to me” cliché. I went to the doctor’s office, scared and ashamed. I put my legs in the stirrups, feeling like I was opening myself up to judgment and ridicule. The doctor was perfectly nice, but the voices in my head remained.
See, in high school, I would sneak into the gym during assemblies for fear that one of the older girls would yell “slut!!” in my direction. “Slut” was the go-to way to bash a girl back then. But I wasn’t actually a slut until college when I embraced pro-sex feminism a little blindly, veering more towards hedonism. At art school, there were endless hipster boys and girls doing the same, moving in and out of each other’s beds (or mattresses on the floor) fluidly.
If you are going to have sex, you need to use protection, if you don’t then blah blah blah. We all know this; it should be procedural. But … we don’t always use protection. The abstinence-only education I received in school in no way prepared me for the real life sex I would have—sometimes unprotected when drunk and sloppy or sober and shy. My gym teachers had taught me about “STDs” as a scare tactic, going over symptoms with thinly veiled disgust. Actually contracting an STI seemed so alien. Who does that? Certainly not me. I was not one of those people! But in reality, something like one in four girls has had an STI. A lot of us are those people.
My doctor was pleasant as she explained what I had, though maybe a little embarrassed for my embarrassment, or maybe embarrassed because my RN Mother worked at the same office. But I got the meds I needed, along with some verbal lacerations from Mom about my lifestyle. My friends weren’t much help either, laughing or leaving an awkward silence between us as I told them what was going on.
I was ready to settle in for a month of movies and prescription cream before bed when I got an unexpected call from my doctor. My lab results were in—and in addition to the lovely genital warts, I also had chlamydia. This time my best friend tried to help: “Well, at least it sounds pretty. Chlamydia. It’s like an exotic middle name.”
What my doctor didn’t tell me is that chlamydia is the most common bacterial STI. And that genital warts is the most common viral STI, and that both are super prevalent in my age group. The truth is, STIs are not rare and shouldn’t be shocking, regardless of the whole “but it can’t happen to me” thing.
My doctor was prepared to give me a prescription, but she couldn’t do it without my Mom knowing. And I couldn’t stand the thought of any more of her stinging comments. So I went to the only person I could think of.
Doctor Dan hung out in the sushi bar where I worked. He sipped Mai Tais and stumbled from the bar to the men’s room, frequently, doing lines on the sink. I don’t know what kind of doctor he was, except the kind that buys waitresses $14 martinis after their shifts, in exchange for letting him give them backrubs. I sweet talked Dr. Dan and was supplied with a jar of mealy horsepills, a treatment for chlamydia I am pretty sure no one had taken since 1982.
I began to understand how STIs spread. I spent the next month not texting back the people I had been dating or having sex with. I made excuses when my friends asked me to go out, trying to avoid meeting new potential partners. I knew if I went out I might find someone I liked, I might want to hook up with them. And I felt so bad about myself, so bad about my STIs that there was no way I could speak up about them in the heat of the moment. I could not imagine saying: “I can’t, I have an STI.”
This is where me-now feels sad. Because STIs could be a positive thing—a force of good change. Reflecting on your sexual experiences and asking yourself what is not working is always positive, especially after contracting an STI.
Eventually, I found support, no thanks to those gym teachers or my Mom or friends. You know how last year Jennifer Love Hewitt went on a talk show and said after a bad breakup, she “vagazzled” herself? Covered her “lady parts” with Swarovski crystals? She says it was a self-esteem thing. And I have to wonder if that breakup and self esteem dip was over genital warts.
See, I invented “vagazzling” years before Jennifer. At the time I got warts, I had been going out all of the time—getting my picture snapped by party photographers, dancing in clubs to electro DJs. And my signature look was to wear rhinestones with my eye makeup—jewels glued next to my eyes or on my cheeks. This seemed cool in 2006, to me anyway.
But now I wasn’t going out. I had no one to impress with new makeup, nowhere to wear my jewels. Bored and depressed in my hot pink studio, I decided to make a new look. Using stick-on heart shaped jewels, I “vagazzled” myself, covering the warts. It probably wasn’t the best thing for the STI, but emotionally, looking at iridescent crystal hearts in the mirror, I felt better. It was about re-connecting with this part of my body that I felt so bad about, that felt disowned, that made me feel like a monster. Jennifer got something right in that whole mess: by making it “pretty” again, I was able to find support from myself and realize I was okay.
Of course, after a few months , the STI cleared up. And when it did, I began hooking up with a skinny brown-eyed boy. Just as things were getting hot — rolling around in bed, my hand spreading over his jeans, tugging his belt from the loops — he stopped me. “I can’t,” he said, nervous.
“I … have genital warts,” he said.
“Oh, I understand,” I responded, trying not to smile too much. “We can just do something else, that’s okay.”
He got me off—safely, thank you. And afterward, laying side by side, he gushed, “That was so cool. I mean you were just, like, so great about it.” I paused, wondering if I should tell him I’d had them too. But the thing that seemed to matter was that he had a sex positive attitude toward STIs. Now finally I did too.