STIs are no big deal. But the stigma can be crushing.
When I was in my early twenties, I was freshly out of a very long-term and incredibly unfulfilling relationship. I embarked, as you do in such situations, on a real ‘eat, pray, love’ type of journey. Finding out who I was, figuring out what I wanted from life, and dabbling in the world of dating. It was exciting, scary and wonderful all at once.
And then I was diagnosed with HPV.
For context, HPV is a virus which can increase the risk of developing some kinds of cancer, or can cause genital warts, depending on the strain. There are more than 100 types of HPV, about 40 of which affect the genitals, and the vaccine protects you against most of the nasty ones, including the ones that cause genital warts. Before the vaccine became available, almost everyone who has sex would have come in contact with it at some point. And so did I.
Even though the type I had isn’t linked to cancer, my new single world – only a few months old – came crashing down in an instant. It started with a panic attack in a doctor’s office and continued with months of health anxiety so viscerally consuming that I lost weight, my hair, and my sense of self.
I realise now that my reaction to this diagnosis mainly came from confusion. I am extremely health conscious and I used protection (most of the time). I was screened regularly. My infection was mostly just unlucky considering the circumstances.
The physical reality of genital warts has objectively been not that bad. In 18 months, I have only needed treatment twice, it was quick and easy, and then I was good to go. But the emotional reality was, at one point, truly debilitating.
I had never heard of genital warts, so I believed the GP when she told me in no uncertain terms that this isn’t the kind of STI that easily goes away on its own or can be treated with a magic pill. I felt unlovable, disgusting, and ashamed.
It was all I could think about and talk about for a long time. It became my point of reference for everything – there was pre-HPV life, and current awful life – and I was convinced I would struggle to find someone moving forward. Pretty full on for a 20-something who’d been single for less than a year.
Dating and sex were off the table. I locked myself in celibate isolation for months, convinced any man would recoil at the conversation and recoil from me. I could not imagine a world in which this would no longer be my reality, and I didn’t want to entertain the idea that I could hope to be in a relationship ever again as the thought of rejection was too painful.
What I’m getting at here is the stigma attached to STIs can make you much sicker than the actual infection. Even for HPV that almost everyone had at some point (in some form) before the vaccine was available.
In the end, it took a few fantastic doctors and a very kind psychologist to pull me out of the spiral I had worked myself into. I learnt to be kind to myself and my body, move away from the blame I had placed on my shoulders and zoom out from my HPV bubble. My body will clear the virus in a few years and in the meantime it can act as an asshole deterrent.
To my surprise, when I did sheepishly make my way back into the dating arena – nobody was awful! Nobody looked at me like I had two heads. Some people clearly pretended not to have an issue with it when they did, and some of them barely batted an eyelid and were more interested in getting down to business.
It’s complicated, and definitely more complicated than I pictured my life being at this age, but it is not impossible. And it’s not hopeless.
My advice to you all, lovely Pedestrian readers, is this: get vaccinated, use protection and book in your sexual health checkup. And if someone tells you they’ve got HPV – warts or not – don’t catastrophise.
If the worst thing that happens to you in life is a handful of treatable, tiny bumps on your vag or peen, then so be it.
One last quick disclaimer from me: from what doctors have told me, the jury really is out on if it is medically necessary to disclose genital warts. Check the disclosure laws in your state, talk to your medical professional, and do what feels right.