For years, I couldn’t say the word “sex” without blushing. In fact, most of the time, I referred to it as “going all the way.” I would even lower my voice when I said it. But when I fell in love with the guy who worked across the hall from me, all of that prim, Victorian era attitude went straight out the window. Lust became my vice.
My daily routine revolved around impatiently counting the minutes until the end of the workday, when we could rip each other’s clothes off. Once, we didn’t even manage to make it out of the office before we gave in to our impulses. (Apologies to my former boss, we totally cleaned up all the files afterward, I promise.) But the thing is, while I had finally allowed myself to indulge my sexual desire, I hadn’t yet shed the shame around it.
Growing up, I was told: “If you don’t sleep around, you won’t get STIs.” And I believed this. So when my gynecologist called to say I had an abnormal Pap test and tested positive for HPV at my annual visit, my mind initially refused to accept it. At the age of 23, I was the last person in my group of friends to lose her virginity, and I had only slept with one person. Naive little me had waited for love — didn’t that count for something?
After spending three years getting biopsies, cryosurgery, and finally a LEEP procedure (removal of the tip of the cervix, which is what ultimately stopped everything in its tracks), it’s been more than seven years since I’ve had an abnormal Pap test. I’m grateful every single time I’m given the “all clear” after an annual visit. But it’s not just about medical clearance — I faced a long and difficult emotional road until I felt that I could date again.
I hated not fully understanding what this virus was or why I had been asymptomatic — or the fact that there were over 100 strains, but most of them clear your body on their own. When I explained my medical predicament to my friends, I was beyond frustrated to see their skeptical faces. They weren’t convinced this was an STI that would likely affect almost every single one of us.
As I learned more about the virus I began to wonder, should you panic or feel ashamed if you get HPV? I had panicked. Cried. Felt sick to my stomach as if my entire world was disintegrating. But I didn’t know enough, because no one was talking about HPV or the stigma around it in 2005. Considering that three out of four women contract one of the many strains of HPV in their lifetime, why the hell weren’t we talking about this?
One look at the mystery and judgement shrouding HPV, and it’s easy to see why. When I was diagnosed, I felt disgusting and dirty. I was also mad as hell and humiliated. Plus, I just didn’t get it — I had waited until I was in a monogamous relationship, and I had only slept with one person. (I’ve learned now, of course, that that doesn’t make you immune to STIs.)
These misconceptions had been cemented in me since my high school sex-ed classes. My teachers were too consumed with the “you will become pregnant, get gonorrhea, and die” framing, to give us a comprehensive sexual education. They taught me that an STI can only be the result of shameful behavior — and that, if you get one, it’s your own fault for being so promiscuous.
When I was diagnosed in the early 2000s, I found the internet to be mostly useless, which further discouraged and depressed me. I did find one organization, then known as Tamika & Friends and now called Cervivor. But with such high rates of HPV, shouldn’t there have been dozens? Now, 10 years later, the online situation isn’t as grim, with sites like Bedsider and Scarleteen, and sex positive influencers like Dan Savage, providing useful and truthful information about STIs.
All of this mystery and negative messaging had an impact on the way I viewed sex and STIs. A year before I was diagnosed, a friend of mine contracted HPV and was very open with me about it. While I had listened to her and nodded sympathetically, in the back of my mind I rationalized, "Well, she has slept with a bunch of people and I haven’t; HPV won’t affect someone like me.”
I know, I was a jerk.
The first thing I did after getting my HPV diagnosis was to reach out to her to apologize for being so small-minded and judgemental, even though I never said those thoughts out loud. She accepted my apology, but was equally as shocked to learn that I contracted HPV from only one sexual partner. Meaning, she had also subscribed to the harmful stigma of promiscuity — that’s what we were taught, after all.
January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, and nearly all cervical cancer incidences are directly related to the HPV virus. Sadly, there wasn’t much for you to read about this during the past few weeks. Clickbait doesn’t typically come in the form of “let’s talk about STIs.”
People are going to continue having sex, whether or not they’re married, above the age of 18, or monogamous — that won’t ever change. What could change is the way we learn and talk about sex so that we’re sex positive, equip with the knowledge that will help us avoid STIs, and seek help without guilt or shame if we do.
I’m tired of feeling judged based on misguided, uneducated opinions; it’s time to remove the stigma. Amanda Marcotte wrote last year that the 2015 decision in Texas to fund abstinence-only education likely passed because of the anecdotes offered up by supporters. If it’s anecdotes we need, I’m ready with mine. I’m done lowering my voice.
By: Danielle Sepulveres