I recently came to the upsetting conclusion that heterosexual women are at much greater risk when it comes to having sex than are heterosexual men. Not only is there the obvious risk of getting pregnant and the fact that women are more susceptible to contracting STDs than men (due to our biological design), but we are also affected by HPV in ways that men are not. Sure, both genders can get warts, which are painless and can be burned off. However, there are other strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer in women, and no symptoms in men. And although these strains can be detected by pap smears in women, they cannot be detected at all in men. So while a man may ask his female partner to be tested for STDs to be sure of what she may or may not have, there is really no way for a woman to know exactly what her male partner may be carrying. (Of course in gay couples men have to worry about the possibility of getting cancer-causing HPV through oral sex, and lesbian partners have the advantage of being able to get tests and pap smears for both members.)
As a woman with herpes, I have become used to the idea that to have sexual relations with someone I have to tell him that I carry an STD. I was recently dating a guy who proclaimed proudly that he had just been tested a month ago and he was totally clean. But what does that really mean? He said his ex-girlfriend had cheated on him, and the relationship ended about four months ago. So if he was tested only three months later, there is still a chance he could be HIV positive, or have herpes, and the test results didn’t reflect the recent transmission. Also, he could easily be carrying HPV and not know it. In fact, chances are he does have HPV. I can count at least five of my girl friends that I know have HPV (and I’m not exactly sitting around taking polls about this stuff). So for every woman I know that has HPV, there’s got to be at least one man I know that has it as well.
Luckily I realized this guy was too immature and self-absorbed for me to continue dating, and we never made it to the point where I needed to tell him of my herpes status. But if I did, I imagine he wouldn’t have taken it well seeing as he was, well, immature. (Is it cute to tell someone that you farted via text message? How do I manage to find these losers?) But let’s say I told him, he accepted it like all the others, and we started having sex. Even with a condom, I’m still putting myself at risk of getting HPV, and subsequently cancer, because we have no way of knowing whether he has it. And because having herpes coupled with HPV actually increases a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer, I have an even greater risk than many other women. So I am always putting my health on the line by having sexual relations with any male, even the ones who are “clean”.
On the flipside, I am bracing myself for the day that I am rejected for having herpes and, frankly, I just don’t think it’s fair. I mean, any guy I’m with could easily have HPV and not ever know it! So because I’m aware and honest about my sexual health, I could be left out in the cold while my male counterparts could potentially go off and unknowingly spread his virus to various women while never having to accept that he is an STD carrier. Several women I know struggle with the emotional distress that comes with having an STD. Men will never have to deal with the trauma of having HPV, one of the most common STDs out there, unless he gets warts (which he can get rid of) or has a girlfriend who develops signs of HPV while being with him.
So, ladies, what can we do? I’m finding that the more I learn about STDs, the more terrifying I find the world of sex to be. I can’t imagine ever giving head while using a condom, and yet I recently found out that a significant number (about half) of mouth and throat cancers are caused by HPV. Should I remain abstinent until I find my very own 40-year old virgin? I don’t think so. I think I’ll try to have the least number of sexual partners as possible from here on out, start saving my money, and get in line for the HPV vaccine.
Published On: January 09, 2009