The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is everywhere. It is the planet’s most common sexually transmitted infection. You don’t need to have intercourse to get it and it can be transmitted by skin rubbing on skin.
It’s a catchy bugger. Almost every woman I know has it. I have it. The few women I know who do not have HPV are married to the only man they’ve ever had sex with. The weird thing is that men don’t seem to know about HPV. Around 50 percent of all men are carriers and pass on the disease, but they have no idea. Because almost every strain only affects women, many men are completely clueless.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, “approximately 6.2 million new cases of sexually transmitted HPV infections are reported every year. At least 20 million people in this country are already infected.” Really, it seems that if you have had sex with a few people, you have HPV.
Oddly, I first learned about HPV a couple years ago from a man I was dating. I had vaguely heard of it, but didn’t know exactly what it was. I had gone out with this particular man a handful of times, but we hadn’t yet had sex. We were removing each other’s clothing when he started to shy away. I asked what was wrong and his reply was, “you never know what people can get just by rubbing against each other.” My initial reaction to this was to be insulted; I felt like I was being accused of having something. After talking for a few minutes though, I found out that this guy had recently received a call from someone he had had sex with. She had informed him that she had one of the non-cancer causing strains of HPV. This guy was concerned about giving it to me. I thought it was nice of him, but didn’t give it much thought and had sex with him anyway. I forgot about the conversation soon after it happened.
Around a year after this incident, the HPV guy was long gone. I had a new boyfriend and it was time for my annual physical. To keep a prescription for birth control pills, women need to have a checkup every year. It’s how they make you go to the doctor instead of skipping it for years on end. I was into my new boyfriend and wanted to keep my birth control prescription, so I went to the doctor for my annual physical. A pap smear was included in this appointment. My results came back as abnormal, so my primary care doctor sent me to a gynecologist.
I arrived at the gynecologist and she reviewed my pap results. She then said something like, “oh, I see you have HPV,” then moved on to another topic. I stopped her with my loud and confused reply of “huh?” The gynecologist explained that it was a common STD and it could lead to cervical cancer. She said that it was a virus and there was no cure. The gynecologist then told me that she wanted to do a biopsy of my cervix to see how many abnormal cells I had and check on their level of cancer-causing evilness.
During this conversation, I was in a state of disbelief. I had an STD?! WTF? I am a safe sex poster child. I am regularly checked for the standard STDs and I send any man I am in a relationship with to the clinic for an HIV test. I had an STD? Me?
The idea that I had an STD rocked my world. My gynecologist didn’t give me much information about it, so I went home and started to research HPV. Once I found out how common it was I felt a little better. What I viewed as the next step was telling my boyfriend. From everything I read, if your girlfriend has HPV, so do you. I had to not only tell him that I had HPV, but that he had it also.
That night, I had dinner with my boyfriend. He knew I had had a doctor’s appointment that afternoon and asked me about it. I told him about the pronouncement of HPV and the biopsy that followed. Not only was he really great about it, but he said he had suspected I had HPV. When I had initially told him about my abnormal pap smear, he had done some Internet research and learned about the virus. It made no difference at all to him that I had it.
Over the next year, I went to the gynecologist every few months to have a cervical biopsy. The doctor was looking for healthy cells that were beginning to display abnormalities. If too many cells changed for the worse, I was going to have a LEEP procedure. This is where an electrical current cuts out all the abnormal cells so that they can’t become cancerous.
This was definitely not a procedure I wanted to have and I worried about it every time I had a doctor’s appointment. At one point, a lot of my cells converted to the dark side, but then a few months later things looked a little better. I haven’t yet had to have this procedure and it’s probable that things will just get better on their own.
It was when I went for my most recent biopsy that the gynecologist saw some white bumps on me. She asked if I had known they were there and I said no. It turned out that the bumps were genital warts.
The warts were caused by an additional strain of HPV. One person can concurrently have more than one strain of the virus. I was the lucky winner of a second strain, one that causes warts. This time, rather than becoming freaked out by the information, I was angry. This was the first time I had visible evidence of HPV and it made me feel dirty.
My gynecologist told me that I had three options regarding how to deal with the warts. The warts weren’t harming me at all so I could do nothing, I could put cream on them and they would take a long time to go away, or I could have them frozen off. I opted for the freezing. Two rounds of freezing did the trick.
The genital wart strains of HPV are the only ones that can affect males. As I am no longer with the boyfriend who was so understanding about my HPV (coincidentally, he is the one I blame for the warts), I am faced with the dilemma as to if I should tell my prospective mates. My doctor says that I don’t have to, but it would be nice of me to do so.
This left me in a quandary. The first time I was faced with a decision as to whether or not to mention HPV to someone I was dating, I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to have sex with the person. I decided to tell him about the HPV and see what happened. He had never heard of HPV and the conversation went extremely poorly. It took place in his car after he asked to come inside my house and have sex with me. The conversation went pretty much like this:
Me: blah, blah, I have HPV, I explain what it is and that everyone has it, including this guy.Him: Holy $#@!!Me: It’s really not a ‘holy $#@!!’ It’s the most common thing there is.Him: You have herpes?!Me: No, I don’t have herpes.Him: You have hepatitis?!Me: No, I don’t have hepatitis.
The conversation went downhill from there. I decided that this dude was an ignorant jackass and I never wanted to hang out with him again, much less ever have sex with him. That solved my quandary for that moment, but not how I should deal with this issue in the future.
I told a good friend this story and she decided to blog about it to solicit opinions of other women. The consensus was that HPV is so common in the world of single people that it is a given. Saying you’ve been exposed to HPV is like saying you have been exposed to the flu virus. Who hasn’t been exposed? I’ve decided that I don’t have to tell my prospective mates about it.
The average HPV infection hangs out in your body for around two years. By my calculations, mine should be gone in few months and my trips to the gynecologist will hopefully dwindle. I imagine though that every new man I have sex with will have his own HPV strains that I will contract, so it’s likely this cycle could go on for years. For me it has become much like the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine decides if men are “sponge worthy” enough to sleep with. When deciding whether or not to have sex with a new man, I wonder “are you worthy of me contracting another HPV strain?”