A Response to Rosenfield: Yes, You Should Tell Him You Have HPV

Recently, my colleagues over at Crushable ran a post entitled Relationship Ninja: Should I Reveal My HPV? The author of the post, Kat Rosenfield, advised a woman that she did not need to notify her off-and-on sexual partner that she had HPV. Rosenfield correctly noted that roughly 80 percent of sexually active adults have some form of HPV and that many people will never even find out that they have it, due to the fact that the disease is often symptomless. However, that’s the only thing she’s right about. Why do I care so much? Well, probably because I had HPV, and because I know it is not something to take lightly.

In the winter of 2008, I dated a real douchebag of a dude who we’ll call Ari. Around the time Ari dumped me via my voicemail, I had a regularly scheduled pap smear. Three weeks later, my gynecologist informed me that I had a form of HPV. Like many strains of HPV, the one that I had didn’t manifest in any outward symptoms – no warts, nothing unusual. But it was one of the strains that, if left untreated, can cause cervical cancer.

Luckily, we caught my HPV early enough that it was treatable. Not so luckily, the treatment was painful and took several weeks to heal. Luckily, during the course of my diagnosis and treatment, I had met an incredible man – we’ll call him James. Not so luckily, I wanted to have lots of hot sex with him, which was totally out of the question while I recovered from the HPV treatment.

If you’ve never been treated for HPV, consider yourself lucky. In order to find out how far the cells had spread and whether they were cancerous, I went through a procedure called a colposcopy. Quite simply, my cervix was scraped of cells by an instrument that looked like a cross between a lobster’s pincher and a glue gun. Because the cervix is incredibly sensitive, I bled for about twenty minutes after the procedure was finished. You are required to lie down, your vagina filled with cotton, until you finish bleeding. After that, a friend or relative need to come pick you up, since you’re weak from the blood loss, in a fuckton of pain, and might need a hand getting yourself home safely.

But that’s only half of it. Once I got the good news that my cells weren’t cancerous, I had to schedule a followup appointment to get the cells removed. That is done by “freezing” the cervix and scraping off the cells. This time there’s no bleeding, but otherwise you still need someone to come pick you up and ply you with painkillers for a day or two until you get over the feeling that your entire lower body is oozing into a pile of sludge. Who picked me up from the appointment? James. Why on earth would I allow someone I had just started dating to come pick me up from the gynecologist’s office when I was hurting and embarrassed? Because I cared about him. And, more importantly, because I cared about other human beings.

At some point during my courtship with James, when I knew he was a guy I could see myself being with longterm, I finally had to buck up and tell him that the reason we weren’t sleeping together yet is because I was in the process of having an STD removed from my body. No, it wasn’t the most fun conversation I’ve ever had. But you know what? It was an important one. Even though men don’t usually get HPV symptoms, they can carry it and pass it to women (after all, I’d gotten it from a dude). I was worried that James would think I was a big gross disease-infested skank, but I owed it to any future girl he ever slept with to be honest with him. Even if James was none the wiser about his possible exposure to HPV, I could not in good conscience know that a future sexual partner of his might have to go through what I’d just gone through. In case you weren’t sure, having your cervix frozen is the least awesome experience I have ever been through. But I’m glad I did it. It’s gross, and I hate talking about it, and this is the first time I’ve ever written about it publicly, but I’m glad I made it through my HPV experience. It reminded me how important it is to take care of my sexual and reproductive health – after all, if I’d been lax about my yearly gyno appointment and skipped a pap smear or two, maybe I could have ended up with cancer instead of a removable clump of cells. And it also reminded me how important it is to be honest with people in your life, even when you don’t exchange bodily fluids with them. Despite wanting to pretend that Ari had never existed, I had to call him and tell him he’d given me HPV. I didn’t tell him because I care about him – I told him because I needed to be a fucking adult, and because maybe his next girlfriend wouldn’t have to find out what it feels like to get your uterus poked at with giant sharp scissors. If you are mature enough to have sex with someone, you should also be mature enough to talk about some of the possible risks that come along with it. I’m not interested in playing Russian roulette with my vagina.

Sure, maybe since “everybody” has HPV, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But, since you don’t know what strain you might have or who could end up with it if you’re not having protected sex, neglecting to inform your partner is arrogant and unsafe.

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    • braak

      I am male, and I had a female sexual partner who revealed to me that she had HPV only after we’d had sex. This is before the conclusive link to cervical cancer was established, but it was still a little troublesome; it seems to me that, as a man, I should absolutely be required to inform my partner if I’m carrying HPV, since it can lead to horrible cancers, and if that’s the case, my partner should absolutely be required to let me know if I’m at risk for it.

      I know that a 1-5 chance that I’m not a carrier isn’t great odds, but it still seems to me to be good enough odds to warrant honesty about it.

    • Shab_Bee

      Sometimes you need to share personal stories in order to help others. Thanks for writing this article!

    • boondiss

      I’m not sure Lilit actually read the offending article. It’s pretty clear that Kat wrote that you should inform your partner if you have a strain of HPV that is high-risk for cancer. I’ll quote her article directly: “For the record, my answer would be different if you knew that you had a strain that’s high-risk for cervical cancer”. Seems pretty clear to me.

    • Lilit Marcus

      Here’s the thing – it takes awhile to figure out which strain you have. I knew I had HPV, but it took a couple of weeks for the results of the biopsy to come back. I’m glad that Rosenfield advocates telling your partner once you know for sure it’s a pre-cancerous strain, but I’d rather inform someone immediately. Better safe than sorry, as they say.

    • canonizer

      braak, part of the problem is, although you likely are a carrier, that cannot be confirmed by any tests. so you’re mostly SOL on what you want and what you can do.

    • LilyL

      Let me first start out by saying that I had cervical cancer. I had surgery under general anesthesia to remove 2 cm of cervix. (The cervix is 3cm.) I opted not to have a hysterectomy (I was 26), I have to have a colposcopy every 3 months. (Except, the colposcopy is just where they look at your cervix with a microscope. I’m not sure about the “scraping” she’s talking about. It was probably either a LEEP to remove a piece of her cervix or cryotherapy that freezes the cervix. Sometimes this is done at the same time as the colposcopy. I seriously don’t know why doctors call it a “scraping.” Probably because that sounds better than, “We are chopping off the end of your cervix.”) The difference with me is that my colpscopy includes an ECC. An ECC is when my doctor shoves a spoon in my cervix to scrape off cells from the inside. I just wanted to put that out there because I know 100% what this author is talking about and it sucks.

      But I want the author to consider the consequences of what she’s saying. Requiring people to inform their partners about HPV would actually do nothing to change the rate of HPV infection. The only thing that would be accomplished is that people who suffer from HPV issues (who are like 90% women, btw) would face the additional burden of informing their partners. To me, that is just super unfair.

      Also, I commented on Kat’s post and discovered that she is apparently clueless about HPV and she does think you have to tell your partners except in cases where you have HPV strains that can’t so anything. Since no one is ever actually diagnosed with those, apparanetly she does think you have to disclose.

      Lastly, everyone is talking about HPV like it’s a lifetime illness. It’s not. Most people clear the virus within 2 years. The question I’m more concerned about is how long after being diagnosed should you continue informing people.

    • Jayline

      I found out i had som sort of hpv about 6 months ago. (the last time i dated) Im a strong 15 yr old girl, but this is a scary thing to think about. Theres got to be some way to stop the spread. If 80% of adults already have a sexually transmitted diseases in a world where the age for sex seems to get younger and younger. I AGREE! both men and women should tell partners. If we dont know how will it ever get better? I know now this stuff really shouldnt be taken lightly. And now the nxt generation has got to hav awarness before we all learn the hard way.

    • -”;@67$!!?

      Oh man this sux for everyone concerned. I developed warts five years ago and two years ago had my first abnormal pap. the warts were mostly removed initially with a few cryo treatments, have come back more or less one at a time each one healed after treatments and now I am wart free( to my knowledge). I am just ending the relationship I was in for five yrs and want to hook up with an ex boyfriend who I had sex with before I had any symptoms(7 yrs ago). I feel he is prob Infected since we had sex before but feel guilty not disclosing before we hook up again. Don’t know what I’m going to do but prob won’t tell him, am I a horrible person or what? Anyway I feel like this is so common we r all screwed even you virgins since this guy was a virgin when I met him but has since had other partners and if I had given it to him he already gave it to them maybe which might b more reason to tell or just figure everyone know sex is risky and needs to prepare themselves for a virus 80% of people who have sex get.