Writing about STIs

I’ve been meaning to write about STIs for a while now. As an insanely anxious and sexually active young person, STIs have always been fear #1 when it comes to sex. After I learned things like herpes and HPV can spread even with barriers, I freaked a little. I always had this fantasy that that magical little layer of latex, could give me all the pleasure of sex with none of the risk. Of course that wasn’t true, something I had to deal with when I got my first irregular PAP result. I was officially “adventurous women” zone.

Saying you should writing about STIs, knowing how much your story could help other is one thing; doing it of course is a whole other scary ball of vulnerability. When I pitched the idea to the RedEye, I was kind of banking on the idea that they would think the topic was too sensitive. Instead they said they loved it and wanted a draft in a week.

So there I was writing about my irregular pap, my freak-out, my lovely boyfriend and my sex life. When I was done writing it was almost 2,000 words which is 1,400 over the 600 word limit. Luckily my editor worked some magic. Of course I couldn’t capture it all but this is what I mainly wanted to say to young women: you have to be your own sexual health advocate in this world; you have to ask questions; you have to push for tests; and yes you are going to have to push through the inevitable shame that sex-negative doctors will unknowingly shove at you.

We are not living in a sex-positive world yet. And women are still not sexually equal to men. There are harmful stereotypes and soul-crushing negativity that will stomp out our sexual journeys, and possibly our health, if we don’t advocate for ourselves and our healthy sex lives.

The first step for me and for many young women is to talk about sex more vulnerability; talk about our fears, our STIs, our abortions, our pregnancy scares, our disastrous one-night stands, our mistakes; to talk about these things with self-love and compassion, knowing the only way forward is through.

My full unedited HPV story is below or you can check out the abbreviated version at the RedEye here. 

Like many middle-class white ladies in their twenties, before this summer what I knew about the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), I knew from that one infamous HPV-freak-out episode of Girls. You know the one where Hannah freaks out about getting HPV and her ultra-bohemian friend eases her woes by telling her “all adventurous women do.” The episode is full of less-than-truths, lots of confusion, and a fair amount of anxiety, that left me assuming HPV was either synonymous with a regrettable ankle tattoo or something that would ultimately kill me. And yet I felt fairly comfortable with my limited, HBO-informed knowledge of this scary sounding STI, at least I did until my own pap results came back abnormal.

But before I get to that moment of instant irrational panic, let me tell the whole story. I’m a huge advocate for safe sex: I like to throw around condoms like they are magical stretchy bags of sex wonder; I get tested just about every time I’m in the doctor’s office because it’s easy and free; and despite my Girls-influenced misinformation about HPV, I tend to know my shit about STIs thanks to some well informed sex-positive friends. So when I started bleeding regularly after sex, I knew something was wrong.

After the usual battery of STI tests came back negative, my well-intentioned but clearly out-of-touch nurse practitioner suggested “taking a break from sex,” as if ignoring the problem is a solution. I cannot emphasize this enough, ladies: you have to be your own advocate. If you think something is wrong, you need to stand up for yourself in the doctor’s office even to sweet middle-age nurses who think you’re just exhausting your lady bits with too much fun sexy time. After persisting, I convinced my primary doctor to perform a pap, a test that checks for irregular and possibly cancerous cells on the cervix and is recommended for women every five years.  

The tests came back abnormal. I freaked a bit.

To be super clear here, I had a pap smear; I did not have an HPV test. The actual test for HPV is not recommended for women under 30. This is because most sexually-active will be exposed to HPV and most people’s bodies fight the virus effectively within two years. Occasionally certain strains of HPV will turn into genital warts or cancer. But for the majority of young women and men, HPV is something they will have and fight without ever knowing it. But many abnormal pap results indicate HPV.

A pap being abnormal meant some of the cells on my cervix were not quite right and further tests were needed, a punch biopsy of my cervix to be precise. Nobody likes the word biopsy but nobody with a cervix has any desire to have anything punch anywhere near their precious cervix. After talking to the rushed nurse, I scheduled the violent-sounding procedure, quickly hung up the phone and crumpled onto the floor.

I then proceeded to call every single lady I knew from my mom to my cousin to my best friend to tell them about my abnormal cervix. I was shocked by how many people had already been through the torture-biopsy. I made all of them describe the procedure in minute detail. I googled a lot. I called back my doctor and made them explain the procedure. By the third slightly tear-y call to the doctor, they also prescribed a Xanax to take before the procedure. I was a mess.

Luckily throughout my panic, I had a pretty incredible partner to be all logical and comforting, as I fell down the rabbit hole of webmd and HPV message boards. I would drink bourbon and tell him about the crazy things I read online and he would hold my hand and remind me that I was not HPVsurvivor49 and that I was going to be okay. Although there is no HPV test for men, having an honest conversation about STI risk can be an oddly bonding and intimate experience, especially when done over a bottle of Kentucky’s finest.

By the day of the biopsy, I was well-informed but still nervous as a natural hypochondriac would be. As I swallowed my Xanax and waited with my partner though, I will say I relaxed a bit. If Girls got anything right it is that all adventurous women do have this experience, not necessarily the punch-in-the-cervix experience, but the experience of walking into unknown, treacherous-appearing territory, with possibly-Xanaxed steady hearts.

The biopsy itself was similar to a pap smear with the traditional gown, stir ups and every one’s favorite speculum. The biopsy is a little pinch of skin from the cervix. Personally I didn’t feel the first two but as my cervix began to react to the tugs, the third hurt a bit and I was ready to be done by the fourth. After a glass of wine, a few Tylenol and some binge watching of Battlestar Galactica, I was almost embarrassed by how nervous I was. The next day I was up and kayaking, blissfully glad I had survived my little adventure

Then of course there was the waiting, waiting to find if the little irregular legions on my cervix were cancer. They weren’t.

They healed. Bleeding after sex stopped. I’m scheduled to have yearly paps until the results come back normal but for the most part, I survived not thanks to any of my own mis-information or fears but completely to the wonderfully supportive people I had in my life.

STIs are scary in large part because of the half-truths we learn from HBO shows, awkward health teachers and the internet. When we think of STIs we think of big scary photos of open herpes legions or people dying of AIDS. This fear leads to blame and shame. We think STIs are a consequence of silly sex mistakes, that only the slutty ones who deserve STIs are the ones impacted. Our fears and our shame keep us from talking to those around us, who are the ones in the end who will help us through this maze of sexual adventure.


The Summertime Shoulds

I haven’t had a summer off in five years. In my “old” life, summer was one of the busiest times, filled with application processing, promotions, and general paper bull shit.

But in this new academic life, summer is freedom. There are no classes, no tests, no assignments, no responsibilities… except for all the “shoulds.” The shoulds of summer are killer. They are the lists of things you should do, that you could do, to make life easier in the fall, to get a head start on life, but none of the things you have to do. The have tos save themselves for Septemeber. June through August are just filled with Tuesday happy hours, sunny day time hikes and the ever-nagging guilt that you should definitely NOT be having this much fun.

I’ve been told the guilt eventually should subside over the summer but to be honest, mine did not. All summer, I felt I should be reading more, doing more research, getting a jump start on my thesis. And yet I did what I needed to do and took Sunday afternoon trips to Bingo, Wednesday night bon fires on the lake, Friday canoe trips.

I read books I’ve been meaning to read. Skimmed new interesting journal articles. I talked to collegues about their projects. I explained my thesis to random townspeople at House Bar. I let academics ruminate around me instead of trying to tackle it down and consume it.

Until this week I felt guilty about how little I had accomplished. And then I was describing my thesis to my family on a trip home and I suddenly had this clarity about what I wanted to discover and how I wanted to frame it. I hadn’t “worked” on my thesis all summer. But in letting is sit there and warm in the sun, it had risen and is now ready to be baked.

I’m not saying this is always the method to employ during summer but this summer, letting go of the shoulds for the wants of summer gave me a sense of clarity and energy pushing me into my second year of grad school.

Latebloomer: a birthday story

Every year when I was growing up, my grandma and I would celebrate our birthdays together. We were both Leos, both doomed to the bear the ugliness of the peridot birth stone, both born in August, during the one month Wisconsin was actually sweltering hot. Grandma was born just one day and 66 years before me, on August 4, 1919. She was born just after the great war and a decade shy of the great depression. I was born in the midst of big hair, shoulder pads and the decline of American culture. We were born to different worlds, different times but Grandma and I always shared this one special day.

Although to be honest when I was little, “our” party was really all mine. To an 8, 9 or 10 year old what is a birthday besides overindulging in cake and rapidly opening as many presents as possible? The concept of having a birthday to celebrate a lifetime accumulation of years seems ridiculous. What could wisdom bring you that a new set of Lincoln logs and a face-full of chocolate cake couldn’t? However after I turned 18, birthdays started to shift. I usually celebrated with friends and fake IDs instead of family and Grandma started to celebrate real things, like making it to 85 without cancer or dementia.

Today, grandma and I celebrated another birthday. I turned 29; Grandma owned 95.

I went to the assisted living home where grandma lives to bring her some McDonald’s coffee and paint her nails. We were gabbing, drinking our coffee and blowing on our nails when I said to grandma, “Can you believe I’m turning 29 today. Gosh I’m old! Don’t’ you think I’m getting old grandma?”

I said it meaning it, even though I knew it would sound silly to a 95 year old. I feel old often in life. Sometimes I feel like I’m lagging behind some mythic standard of success. I am in a graduate program that is often populated with younger people, people just starting their careers and their twenties. Many of my friends are married, more than a few have babies. I can’t help but think that is what I should be doing, paying a mortgage, researching organic baby wipes, establishing life in a more traditional way. I can’t help but sometimes feel I’m too old at 29.

Grandma looked at me with some annoyance but mostly with uninterrupted wisdom.  “I certainly do not think you are old.” She sipped her coffee again, careful not smudge the light pink nail polish. “Nik, you are only as old as you choose to feel.”

For the next hour, grandma talked about all the stuff she had done in her twenties. She said she was a rather “late bloomer,” not getting married until 24, not having her first baby until 28, which in the 40’s was old maid status. She spent her twenties in secretary school, working for the telephone company, one harrowing solo trip to Chicago she still raves about and traveling the U.S. to visit family and her beau, until she eventually married grandpa “illegally” (since air force bombaders were not supposed to be married) and traveled down to Louisiana to be with the love of her life. Grandma never regretted not starting her family sooner, not marrying younger. She spend her twenties living, exploring, becoming the woman who would eventually be the matriarch of our crazy Wisconsin family. She would not be the Millie our family relies on and cherishes without the wandering of her twenties.

This is not the first birthday I plummeted into a kind of “I’m so old” self-pity. I very vividly remember a solid 2 hours of crying on my 21st. There was the “I’ll die alone” birthdays at 25 and at 26 again. I often freak out around my birthday succumbing to the fear of that late blooming is pathetic blooming, that no matter what age I am, I am “too old.” But every year, grandma has the one line that centers me, grounds me, brings me back to my roots, the roots of independent women, of stoic iron-willed matriarchs, of late bloomers. This year, at 29 I know “old” is only a feeling that you can choose to feel or not feel and that blooming late just means that my nineties will be that much more kick-ass.

Buying Condoms for the 1st Time

Sometimes I can’t believe I get paid (although not well) to write about these kinds of things! Recently I had my very first trip to the family planning aisle at CVS. The adventure was informative, overwhelming and in the end made me understand that we really don’t have very much understanding of our co-genders safe sex accessories.

Any tinge of excitement about purchasing my first condoms quickly dissolved to pure intimidation when I saw the sheer volume of options and ridiculous prices. Am I the only sad sack who didn’t know condoms, on average, are about $1 a pop?

I quickly passed over anything textured, because to be honest that stuff is a pointless gimmick. I vetoed the spermicide ones because those aren’t any more effective than normal condoms, plus they taste gross and can do some damage if you have sensitive lady parts. I glossed over the overpriced foreign condoms because, you know, America. That left me with a lovely purple box of lubricated Durex. Now all I had to decide is do I go for the normal 30 pack or spring for the value option.

Read more here 

What is a “normal” body?

The other day I was at Target and there was a crop top in the clearance aisle. At first I passed it up even though it was super cute because… well…. I’m not a size 2 and because I always feel like I “need” to be 10 pounds lighter. But then I remember Mindy Kaling talking about wearing a crop top because it was cute. So I grabbed the top, tried it on and it was actually pretty cute. Wearing it felt a bit revolutionary not to mention breezy. It’s all part of my re-thinking of what a “normal” body is and how to focus on being healthy and feeling sexy instead of always trying to lose another 10 pounds.

crop top

I wrote about our society’s lack of “normal” bodies in the media in the RedEye today. Check it out here or see a little snipet of it below


But usually in our culture of extremes we don’t hear from or see these women; swimsuit models jump from size zero to plus-size 16. Where’s the segment of size 8-ish women who go to the gym three times a week, do one of those intense spinning class once a month and like to eat pizza with their boyfriends? These women look normal, and they look good in bikinis too.

Last month, Mindy Kaling was on the Jimmy Kimmel show talking about what it means, at a size 8, to not represent the “traditional” standard of American beauty. “I, like, run and work out. It takes a lot of effort to look like a normal/chubby woman,” she said, to huge cheers from the audience.

I’m a pretty average, size-8 woman myself, and Mindy’s words drove home this idea that normal without reaching “perfection” can be healthy, sexy and pretty fantastic. I realized we don’t usually see normal women in the media; we don’t hear about their exercise routines or what they had for dinner. We don’t see them in their jobs and relationships, or just being successful in life.

I’m hoping for more examples of awesome, average women like Mindy Kaling and Robyn Lawley in the media. But while you’re waiting, go for a run — not to burn off the pizza from last night, but because it feels good. Throw out those ridiculous beauty magazines, because you already know that the Kardashian family is a hot mess. And for the love of God, wear whatever bikini you want. Every body is a bikini body.
Read more at http://www.redeyechicago.com/news/redeye-miss-indiana-opinion-20140617,0,6032855.column#HOJDwsA1JdSiQuCV.99

Pooches, naked bodies and what is beautiful

As has been previously established, I watch a lot of porn. Mainly this is for academic research but of course I still watch porn for pleasure. Only now when I do, I do so with a much more “discerning” eye. I’m looking for the what-I-now-sadly-recognize-as-typical violence and degradation, but I’m also looking at body types. It is always impressive to me how female porn stars  manage to keep their stomachs flat in almost every position; like they are constantly sucking in their guts while they are vigorously humping along.

I first noticed this when I was researching Belle Knox’s new porn. As a new porn star, she is still rather novice (and young at 18). In one of her first videos, a hideous thing made for facial abuse, Knox was receiving doggy and her back was hunched up and therefore a bit of the world’s tiniest pooch was sticking out from a very slender girl. The director instructed her to “try to suck your fat belly in.” (I don’t recommend it but if you want to see the full scene, here is the very NSFW or suitable for life video). Granted this is a site designed for degradation and humiliation but it also made me realize as a novice Knox hadn’t learned the tricks of arching her back and sucking in so that her stomach appeared flat at all times.

Knox’s little faux paus also made me realize how used I am to seeing that sucked in stomach trick; I have begun to imagine most women have flat stomachs in all positions all the time when naked. I think it is fair to say that in reality though most women do not. To be honest I’m not usually thinking about my stomach when I’m having sex; I don’t have sex for a video camera so I don’t usually worry if a pooch is hanging down or out when I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.


I guess I wonder and worry if other women do think about their pooches, and if this thought may keep them from fully enjoying sex. To be blunt, when most women orgasm they can barely contain their thigh muscles much less hold tight their guts. If women are obsessed with replicating the flat stomach tricks of porn stars, I wonder if they may be impeding on their own enjoyment of sex.

Beyond though just women enjoying sex, I wonder if we aren’t recognizing the sexy of the pooch. I recently saw a posting on Facebook about what famous paintings of naked women would look like if they were photoshopped to today’s standards. It was terribly sad. All these beautiful women in these gorgeous paintings, cut down, their softness just sliced away. I understand some people’s bodies are naturally slim which is also totally sexy and beautiful but most women have some softness to them, a bit of a curve in the belly, a bump in the hips. This is gorgeous. This is not something to be slivered away at or held in. This curve of lusciousness is meant to be touched and caressed and held (or humped, pounded and spanked if that is what you are into.)

I’m not advocating for gaining a pooch if your body doesn’t have one. Be healthy and happy. But I’m saying, when I look at myself naked, I don’t want to take a magic photoshop eraser to my stomach or my hips or my thighs. I want to see my body, its health, its softness, and see sexy.

I think that is what these artists hundreds of years ago saw when they looked at women and I think that is what modern pornographers have lost in their interpretations of the female body.