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.