Alt.sex.column: A pox

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By Andrea Nemerson. View more Alt.sex.columns here.

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Dear Andrea:

I went for a test and the nurse found a genital wart. I have had more than 20 sexual partners and enjoy casual sex occasionally, but I always use condoms (plus the pill, just in case). I feel embarrassed, like I've been irresponsible, but I thought I was protecting myself thoroughly. How can I get over this and feel OK about sex again? And are there ways to keep from getting another wart?

Love,

Dirtied

Dear Andrea:

I just found out I have a genital wart. It's a really small bump that could have been there awhile without me noticing. I've had it treated with freezing and have cream to apply to it; but I've been doing research and I keep getting conflicting information about how long it will last, whether any kind of sex is safe while it's still there, how infectious it is, and what to do if it doesn't go away.

I feel gross and dirty about it. I always use condoms and I don't know where I could have gotten it. To make matters worse, I have a new boyfriend who doesn't seem to have noticed anything wrong. Now that I've found out about this, I am dreading telling him. Help!

Love,

Sullied

Dear Andrea:

I found out I have HPV and I don't even know how I ...

Dear Warty Readers:

OK! We have found some warts. Until someone claims to have acquired them on purpose, or to have been accidentally exposed but really stoked about it, I will assume that everyone is feeling kind of miserable and a little soiled and having a hard time coming to terms with it. This is completely understandable. Indeed, it is expected. Having an infectious disease which may affect your ability to find happiness with other human beings would certainly be harsh enough; the whole STD thing adds insult to injury.

Personally, I think STDs need an image makeover. Syphilis never seemed to shock anyone in Elizabethan literature, but everyone was poxy then anyway, not to mention smelly. We've had centuries of crass jokes and shame campaigns since, though: a kind of cumulative shaming which no public health department's "it could happen to anyone" message is going to be able to alleviate. Of course you feel bad.

I would hope — I would wish, anyway — that normalization would help. This shit is everywhere! I usually go to the CDC's site for STD statistics. Here are their latest on HPV:
Approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6.2 million people become newly infected each year. At least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.
That's a lot of people feeling shamed and dirty. Maybe it's time to just accept that the disease is out there, it's easy to get, and even the most cautious (well, the second-most cautious; the first-most cautious stay home and order their groceries over the Internet) can contract it. Having HPV doesn't say a thing about your self-respect, your hygiene, or anything much beyond your native level of luckiness. For the record, the CDC's "how not to get HPV" advice is not all that helpful:
... even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV, if their partner was infected with HPV. For those who are not in long-term, mutually monogamous relationships, limiting the number of sex partners and choosing a partner less likely to be infected may lower the risk of HPV. Partners less likely to be infected include those who have had no or few prior sex partners.
While safety-by-partner-choice really does work, it sure does limit the choice of potential partners, from amazing abundance (in the big cities, assuming minimum levels of datability) to one of those measly little prix-fixe menus which never have any desserts except crème brûlée. What if you don't want inexperienced partners?
Here's the deal: none of you was being irresponsible. The virus got transmitted not through but around the condom, which did reduce the likelihood of transmission. Your immune system may clear it (rendering you disease-free) or it may not, in which case you may always be contagious from the area of the wart. Treating the warts won't cure you, but may lower the chance of transmission, which may in turn help to make you feel less leper-like and more like your old self. Oh, and lest we forget, visible warts are the good kind of HPV! The ones that cause cervical cancer are invisible, the bastards.
Now for the bad part — you do have to tell people. You have to tell potential sex partners. You may lose some, but people who are really interested are likely to stick around. You have to tell the boyfriend. Since you just found out, you can't be accused of withholding important information. Normalize for him, and bring up the CDC's statistics (50 percent! How's that for company?). Get treated. Take deep breaths.
Love,
Andrea
Contact Andrea at andrea@altsexcolumn.com for more info.

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