I'll never forget when my best friend Violet* found out she had HPV.
We were super young — maybe 15 years old — and she had an unusual pap smear, so she got tested and found out she had HPV. Our whole group was devastated. HPV was an STD, and STDs were the scariest things we knew nothing about.
Now, 15 might seem young to some of you, you know, for all that sex/gynecologist drama. But I always ran with fast crowds, babe. I still run with fast crowds.
Violet was emotionally scarred and deeply terrified that, for the rest of her life, she would have to carry the stigma of having an STD, and she dutifully swore off sex for the next two years.
Cut to senior year of high school, and we all got a reality check. We quickly realized that everyone we knew seemed to have HPV, and it really wasn't even that big of a deal. I mean, come on, who doesn't have HPV?
Here is the irony: If everyone we know (including ourselves) seems to have HPV, why can none of us ever explain what exactly HPV is? If HPV is SO common, how come hardly any of my friends — sophisticated, city-bred, educated and sex-positive men and women — have a general understanding of the virus beyond "warts, gross"?
In recent years, I've taken it upon myself to get a little more educated about all STDs, not just because I'm a sexually-charged girl creature, who has found herself at risk more times than she cares to count, but because, girl, I'm getting older.
After decades of treating my body like a playground, I'm starting to treat it like a temple, honey. And that starts with being informed.
I decided to call upon STD expert Dr. H. Hunter Handsfield, MD, Professor Emeritus of Medicine, University of Washington Center for AIDS and STD, to find out exactly what HPV feels like, how we get it and how to prevent it.
And lucky for you, Dr. Handsfield schooled me in everything we need to know about this elusive, mysterious ~virus~ we all have (unless we've had the Gardasil vaccine, but more on that later).
When I first mentioned HPV to Dr. Handsfield, he quickly informed me that it's not something to panic over.
He tells me that the "ewww" factor surrounding HPV is because it presents itself as warts, which have been associated with disgust throughout history.
When we think of warts, we think of catching them from toads and the rest of that fairy tale bullshit, right? But instead, Dr. Handsfield tells me that, essentially, we need to get the hell over it (in much more professional words, of course) because it's actually totally normal to have HPV and to have genital warts.
In the words of Dr. Handsfield: "It's not exactly desirable, but it is, in fact, normal."
HPV is not exactly desirable, but it is, in fact, normal.
If you don't believe that HPV is normal, then I have a challenge for you.
Go look at the CDC's (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) page about HPV right now. In big letters, it says, "HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives."
"It's so common that it needs to be de-stigmatized," Dr. Handsfield tells me. "For every one woman diagnosed, there are 10 that are undiagnosed."
HPV is so common that it needs to be de-stigmatized.
In fact, since most people don't have an outbreak right after they've been exposed to the virus, most women only find out they have HPV when they go to the gynecologist for a routine visit, and their pap smear comes back abnormal.
If the same woman hadn't gone to gynecologist, she would have never even known. Even I am not 100 percent sure I have HPV, but honestly, I wouldn't be remotely surprised if I did. I would be shocked if I didn't.
So if most people find out they have HPV because they get an outbreak of genital warts, what do genital warts look and feel like? I can feel your curiosity penetrate the computer screen.
Dr. Handsfield gives me the lowdown, telling me they're "painless bumps in the genital area and the anus."
My anonymous friend Cindy* tells me they look similar to the smaller parts of a cauliflower, which I've heard a few other people say as well. It should be noted that they can come in clusters, and they can also spread and grow.
Sounds awfully like herpes, huh? Well, herpes is generally more painful, but Dr. Handsfield tells me it's never a good idea "to self-diagnose." And obviously, it's important to see a health care professional whenever anything other than the norm is going on down below.
Now, while there is no cure for HPV, Dr. Handsfield says 90 percent of the cases of genital warts will go away on their own, but you can take medication to help reduce outbreaks or even have the warts frozen off.
If you're a young kitten who isn't yet sexually active (age 9 to 26), however, Dr. Handsfield highly recommends you get the HPV vaccine Gardasil. While there are over 100 types of HPV, Gardasil protects you from nine, specifically the ones that can have some serious long-term effects, like cervical cancer, anal cancer and throat cancer.
"Every young person should have the Gardasil vaccine," Dr. Handsfield tells me, as it will set you up for a future of prime sexual health.
There's a long delay between HPV exposure and visible symptoms.
It's also important to note that, according to Dr. Handsfield, there's a long delay between HPV exposure and visible symptoms. It might not show up in the body for two to 12 months after exposure, and you may not have an outbreak until way, way after. It's really impossible to tell who gave it to you.
So don't go blaming someone, darlings. You never know who you got it from or who someone else got it from, so don't go HPV-shaming, you hear?
Also, darlings, Dr. Handsfield tells me HPV is also spread through skin-to-skin contact, not bodily fluids. So condoms aren't totally effective at protecting you against HPV. However, they do greatly reduce your risk, so wrap it up, lovelies.
If you have specific questions, Dr. Handsfield recommends asking the experts online at the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) website, which gives you access to experts who specialize in sexual health and STDs. It's an awesome recourse, and as your lesbian big sister, I highly recommend it.
Read more from our Sex Ed series.
*Name has been changed.