"Every few years, the idea of catching something from bonking re-enters the zeitgeist, and suddenly it’s all anyone can talk about."
It was a phone-call that, oddly enough, I found very satisfying. “Hello,” I said, in my best stern voice, “it turns out I have HPV, and since I know you have been sleeping with [I can’t even remember her name in order to change it], you might want to tell her to get tested, too. Thanks, bye.”
I then hung up, and went and made myself a cup of tea.
Ah yes, STDs... sorry, STIs (remember, I grew up in the Condoman era), the topic that makes photo editors reach for the “young people with serious expressions” or “windcheater-wearing Edward Furlong lookalike sat on a verandah with head bowed in sorrow” stock photo folder.
Every few years, the idea of catching something from bonking re-enters the zeitgeist, and suddenly it’s all anyone can talk about; this is precisely what is happening at the moment, since the terrific HBO show Girls just tackled the topic head on, with Hannah (Lena Dunham) discovering she has HPV (human papillomavirus) after having a routine sexual health test.
And this is a good thing, since as we all know - thanks mostly to this Australian Government campaign - STIs are on the rise among young people in Australia in a rather alarming fashion, perhaps since this generation wasn’t traumatised to the point of either psychoanalysis or buying stock in Ansell (or both) by the notorious Grim Reaper ads. (“Alwezz use condoms. ALWEZZ!”)
Then again, the Grim Reaper bowled his way through prime-time tele when I was little, and I still grew up and got an STI.
I’m telling you this because I have zero shame (about this specifically, though also, it could be argued, in general), and because I think what’s so often missing from the STI dialogue is a personal voice. There’s a great deal of shame and fear-mongering involved in sexual health commentary at its worst, and, at its ‘best’, a sort of vague, arms-length tone about “a friend I knew” or “Mary* (not her real name)”. Why? I suppose because on some level we all still like to pretend that STIs are things that happen to other people.
I found out I had HPV when I went to the Royal Women’s emergency ward with a particularly bad case of thrush. (Hi to everyone currently enjoying morning tea!) Midway through my cervical exam, the doctor casually asked “Are you aware you have HPV?” I replied, meekly and a little bewildered, “No??” while my vagina did to the speculum what tough guys in movies do to beer cans.
Yes, it turns out I had HPV, and - joy of joys - a “growth” on my cervix. I was sent on my not-so-merry way, walking like a freshly dismounted John Wayne, to the angels at the local sexual health clinic. In their wonderfully matter-of-fact way, they told me that - I may be paraphrasing - shit happens, and most people will be exposed to, or even carry, HPV. (They then went to town on my cervix and labia with a Dalek-like can of liquid nitrogen, which was less wonderful.)
They weren’t wrong; my diagnosis was in 2004, and current government stats suggest that four in five people will have had an HPV infection at some point in their lives. Rates of infection for gonorrhea and syphilis are up, and HIV infections are also increasing. Ten per cent of the population carries the herpes simplex virus.
With that in mind, why are we still carrying on this shadowy conversation of shame when it comes to our sexual health?
It is, unfortunately, just a fact of life, albeit one we can take steps to minimise, if not avoid. The fact is, we have sex: lots of us will catch an STI of some description. It doesn’t mean that we are slovenly, or negligent (though, yes, some of us are), or “sluts”.
I assumed that I “caught” HPV from my philandering boyfriend (I should have heard the warning bells when he once did a standing backflip in a restaurant, surely the hallmark of a laissez faire approach to personal health) at the time because it made sense in my personal narrative. The reality, of course, is that it could have been from any one of my former partners, including the “nice” ones.
Saying “It won’t happen to me” - and articles that imply as much - leads to the sort of behaviours that can increase the risk of infection. I used to bat my doe eyes and cry “In the sack, then!” whenever a slimy lothario cooed “I got tested last month”; now I’m a card-carrying franger fanatic and I visit the sexual health clinic once a year. Yes, it’ll never happen to you, until it does.
So many people put off getting an STI test because they’re either a) sure they’re clean or b) too scared to find out that they’re not. It was the latter that meant my HPV got to the point where my cervix looked like a cauliflower and put me in the “high risk” category for cervical cancer. What are you gonna do? As my sexual health triage nurse didn’t quite say, shit happens.
Maybe it will happen to you. If it does, know this: there is nothing “wrong” with you. Yes, sometimes the treatment is rubbish, and the coping mechanisms tragic-bordering-on-hilarious (my new boyfriend and I devised a plan to “sensuously” apply the Aldara cream I’d been prescribed, which inevitably ended in me leaping up and down screaming “OW OW!” and him sulking in the corner), and pap smears will always be a bit shit so long as stainless steel BBQ tongs can be mistaken for speculums. But life goes on. You’re doing okay.
And yes, you will have sex again.