I Had HPV and Lived to Tell the Tale

Bryce Covert As a follow-up from Maya’s post yesterday and for #HPVDay today, this is a guest post by Bryce Covert, a writer and editor who works on feminism, economic equality, and progressive politics. You can find her work here.

I was 24 when I found out that my health insurance would cover the full cost of getting three shots of Gardasil, the newly released HPV vaccine. I signed up immediately — but I was already too late.

I started a monogamous relationship with a boy who thought he was clean of STDs in January of 2008. In March, I had my third and final Gardasil shot. By June we had broken up, and it wasn’t until after a check-up appointment with my gynecologist in September that I learned I had “high risk” HPV. On the phone, getting the news, I remember clearly that my first reaction was, “But my boyfriend told me he didn’t have any STDs.” My doctor reminded me that men can’t be detected as carriers – and it’s hard to pin down who gives it to you. My very next reaction was, “But I’ve had the Gardasil vaccination.” To which she replied, “Did you have intercourse before finishing your shots?” There was the problem.

The Republican presidential candidates have created an unlikely swirl of controversy lately over the HPV vaccine and whether women should be immunized against a virus that can end up giving them cervical cancer. And sure, Michele Bachmann probably wouldn’t be on my side. I was, after all, having sex outside of the sacred bonds of marriage. But other than that, I took the precautions I should have. I made sure he had been tested for STDs before we had sex. We used condoms. Yet neither of those precautions can guard against a virus that can’t be detected in men and can be passed even with the use of barrier contraception.

The GOP is debating the use of the vaccine for young girls. My biggest regret was not that I had sex, but that I hadn’t gotten the vaccine earlier. The pain I experienced of getting an STD from a newly ex-boyfriend was only amplified by not having been as protected as possible. Now it felt void. I had already been given the virus before I could finish getting the vaccine. And I’m lucky to have been well informed and well insured enough to hop on it right away. There were about 50 million uninsured Americans last year who would have to pay out of pocket for the vaccine. Meanwhile, it seems conservatives are intent on making sure women are more scared of having sex than of having cervical cancer.

I am also extremely lucky that I never developed any cancerous lesions and have now been clear of it for a few years. Many women have much more harrowing stories about their experiences with cancer-causing strains of HPV. Some will not live to tell the tale.

And I’m very lucky in one other crucial way. A few months after I found out about my HPV, I met a boy who I liked and who liked me back. We started to date. So I had The Conversation with him about my STD. And he told me it didn’t matter to him. Most won’t have that same experience. Despite the fact that about 80 percent of sexually active people will be infected with some strain HPV at some point in their lives, because it is contracted by having sex it still comes loaded with shame. When Ayelet Waldman shared her experience of getting it from her husband on Twitter, the reaction was “TMI!” and “Ew!”

There is nothing TMI about talking about our experiences with HPV. It is common and hard to prevent – except for getting the vaccine (for the types that matter). Meanwhile, more than 12,000 women are expected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2011, and high-risk HPV is the primary cause of it. More than 4,000 are expected to die from it. And the damage isn’t limited to women: 5,600 men get HPV-associated oropharyngeal cancers yearly, 1,500 get HPV-associated anal cancer, and 400 men get HPV-associated penile cancer. It affects nearly everyone in some way — and for some it can mean a death sentence. This is nothing to hide in the closet. My story is one of success, but not everyone will be so lucky.

We need to share these stories. We need to fight the stigma around all STDs (no, they’re not punishment for being a slut), but this one in particular is quickly becoming the STD that defines our generation. Silence and shame only serve to make it spread more quickly.

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