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.