Seeing as this article is focusing on HPV it seems appropriate to start with some undisputed facts. Human Papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV, is a highly contagious sexually transmitted virus. You cannot be infected with HPV unless you have sexual relations with an infected individual. HPV comes in many different strains, most of which cause no symptoms. This means that unless you are regularly tested you might not even know you are infected. In the medical world, it is known that Type 6 and 11 cause approximately 95% of genital warts as a symptom. Another symptom is cancer – Type 16 and 18 are linked to causing approximately 80% of female cervical cancer and 90% of HPV related cancer in males.
I contracted HPV when I was 19-years-old. I have no idea who I got it off, but I like to assume they did not know they were infected. Otherwise, they willingly risked my life by exposing me to a virus that causes cervical cancer. Thankfully, I was lucky – I contracted an unknown strain that resulted in genital warts.
When HPV manifests as genital warts (which occur on your genitals, including your cervix and anus if you have anal sex with an infected person), it is a very uncomfortable and painful sensation. I can’t tell you how terrified I was when I realised something was wrong. I went to a free clinic who prescribed me an ointment costing over $100 (which is not covered on Australian Healthcare). This ointment was trash and didn’t offer any relief from my symptoms or kill the warts as promised. I went back to the clinic and they decided to try and freeze the warts off with liquid nitrogen. I went back on a weekly basis for six months. Yeah that’s right – half a year. No luck. Actually, they got WORSE.
Finally, I built the courage to come clean to my dad and tell him that I was infected. He thankfully had the money to send me to a proper gynaecologist who told me that I would need surgery to remove them under general anaesthetic. My dad was happy to pay for me to be treated in a private hospital the very next week (though he was not impressed to be 2.5K poorer than he was previously). I am happily wart free now, but I still have HPV. There is no cure for HPV, however it’s possible for your body to filter it out eventually, so I dutifully go to my biannual pap smear and get tested to see if it’s decided to leave yet. It has no symptoms but there is still stigma around it.
I had to be honest about my experience so you can understand this is a personal account of the stigma surrounding HPV positive status. If you’re like me, don’t worry. We are not a minority; HPV is the most common STI and it can affect anyone who is sexually active.
Firstly, when you contract an infection like this you feel dirty; I felt impure and disgusting. This is due to the unfair stigma attached to being positive for an STI. Society makes you feel like it’s all your fault and that you deserve this consequence of having sex. That’s exactly how I felt. That is until I found out that HPV is contracted through skin to skin contact, meaning that it can infect areas not covered by a condom, you can contract it no matter how safe you are. For some reason, this improved my mood about my diagnoses; it means that smart, safe and respectable people can be infected by this virus.
Another common stigma is HPV being confused with HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and HSV (Herpes Simplex Virus). This stems from a lack of knowledge because of poorly run sexual education in the Australian school system. This failure to educate individuals correctly leads to prejudiced thoughts and beliefs about those who are infected with STI’s. In order to decrease myths and stigmas around STI’s, further education should be offered. This would allow people to gain a better understanding about STI’s, henceforth giving us a way to talk about them without shaming those who are infected. Another thing that points to a lack of education is the common misconception that HPV only infects women. This could be due to the HPV vaccination only being available to female adolescents in high school vaccination programs. I believe that the vaccine should be distributed to all high school students as everyone is at risk of contracting HPV once they become sexually active.
I hope that by sharing this story I can help people understand that STI’s can happen to anyone. A positive diagnosis does not mean that you should treat someone as any less a person. Please have open minds and be careful what you say. Many people who I know have trashed talked those with STI’s without knowing that the person they were talking to is infected. I was ashamed, and I no longer am.
It is important to share our stories to help others who may be suffering in silence, please know anyone reading this, you can always talk to me about your STI status without fear of judgement.