During finals week of last semester, I was late on papers for two of my classes—but not my period. The sun was shining, my new IUD was working, and I was looking forward to going home and making sweet, condom-less love to my long-distance boyfriend. We had agreed that we wouldn’t continue to be monogamous while I was at school, so we both decided to get tested before break in order to get straight to business when we reunited. I planned it perfectly so that I would get the results from my gynecologist right before I left Claremont. What I didn’t plan on was finding out I had HPV.
My first response was panic. How could this happen to me? As somebody who prides herself on being in control of her sex life, the scariest part of this whole ordeal was that I didn’t know who I got this STI from or when I contracted it. I’d only ever had unprotected sex with my boyfriend over the summer after we both got tested, and I had used a condom with every person I had slept with since. I thought I was being responsible, yet somehow, I still ended up with HPV.
I couldn’t help but think I deserved it. I felt like it was a punishment for having multiple partners, even though I was in a consensually non-monogamous relationship. Despite growing up around feminist literature that pushed for the destigmatization of STIs, I still felt…dirty. Our culture paints STIs as something that happens to promiscuous girls as a result of their sinful ways. I felt myself regressing back into my late 2000s slut-shaming self. It was much easier to say that having an STI was nothing to be ashamed of until it happened to me–go figure.
I told myself that I needed to snap out of it and think rationally. I racked my brain trying to retrieve dim memories of high school health class. Then I remembered it was 2015, pulled out my phone, and started Googling.
Here’s what I found: There are two main kinds of HPV, one low-risk, which can cause genital warts, and one high-risk, which, if left untreated, can cause cervical cancer. I was diagnosed with the latter. The prospect of cancer was alarming to me, to say the least, especially in contrast with how calmly my gynecologist told me that all I needed to do was get a pap smear every six months.
However, the more I read about it, the more I realized that it actually wasn’t a big deal. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 90 percent and 80 percent of sexually active men and women, respectively, will become infected with a form of HPV at some point in their life. Those with penises currently cannot be tested for HPV, but those with vaginas should get regular pap smears, which is essentially a test to see if the cells on the cervix have become cancerous—especially after finding out they have HPV, as most high-risk HPV infections do not cause any symptoms. The good news is that most high-risk HPV infections clear out of your body within one to two years. The pap smears are just to check that your body is doing its job in getting the infection out.
But all the information I gathered about the prevalence of HPV and the low interference it would have with my life didn’t address the moral crisis about my sexual identity. Even if the CDC told me that 99 percent of all people had HPV, it still wouldn’t make me feel less shameful about the fact that I would have to tell everyone I sleep with in the coming years. After a few days of calling my previous partners and filling them in, I got a call from my boyfriend. Apparently, his ex-girlfriend had also just found out that she had HPV. This meant that I most likely contracted it from him. Even if I hadn’t slept with anyone else the entire semester, I would have still had HPV since my boyfriend wasn’t aware he had it when we had unprotected sex. The number of people I slept with truly didn’t matter.
I consider myself lucky, because coming to terms with the moral implications of my HPV didn’t involve much negotiation on my part. What shocked me most was how quickly I reverted back to toxic, self-hating thoughts after my diagnosis. My confidence in asserting that STIs were not a big deal came from abstract beliefs that I thought were enough to sustain themselves. When it came down to it, my beliefs were not at all rooted in real life; I’d never received comprehensive education on what STIs are and I’d never heard anybody speak about their experiences. This, I assume, is because of the shame still associated with them. STIs are not punishments for having 'too much' sex. STIs do not indicate anything about your status as a human being. STIs are just infections that have been given far too much meaning by those who care far too much about policing the sex lives of others.