HPV is a common condition ― so why are people still joking about it like it’s the plague?
Most sexually active individuals will get the human papillomavirus at some point in their lives. Approximately 79 million Americans have HPV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In spite of the STI’s prevalence, people tend to make light of it or distance themselves from it. That’s what happened earlier this month, when actress-activist Jameela Jamil likened pundit Piers Morgan to “Britain’s HPV.”
Jamil’s Twitter followers ― not to mention Morgan himself, of course — were quick to call her out on the quip.
“Aren’t you a body-positive activist?” asked cultural critic Ella Dawson. “This joke only adds to the stigma of super common STIs, a stigma that prevents people from seeking testing and treatment, and makes people who are HPV+ feel horrible about themselves and their bodies.” (To Jamil’s credit, she replied saying she has HPV and thinks it’s “nothing to be ashamed of.”)
Jamil’s tweet highlights a pervasive problem when it comes to sexual health. Despite how common STIs are, they’re still used as a punchline. A condition like HPV is hard to to come to terms with, in large part because the diagnosis is so stigmatized. Sexologist Emily L. Depasse shared a graphic that maps out exactly how individual shame and social censure both contribute to and result from stigma about STIs.
What’s worse, research shows that shame and fear surrounding sexual health issues can be a barrier to testing and management.
What we need is to shift the conversation: Lazy jokes and sensationalized headlines like “herp alerts at Coachella” aren’t helping anyone, but talking about STIs in a candid way early on could do wonders.
“If we had more comprehensive sexuality education in schools, and parents and other caregivers spoke about this with their kids, we’d do a far better job at reducing the stigma,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, a sexuality education expert.
“The more we discuss it, the more it becomes a routine part of relationship and healthcare conversations and the less of a ‘big deal’ it will seem,” she added.
In the spirt of getting educated, we asked Schroeder and other doctors and sex experts to share some info about HPV.
There are hundreds of strains of HPV.
Generally speaking, there are high-risk and low-risk strains of HPV. Some types of HPV can cause genital warts or warts on your hands. But two high-risk types, HPV 16 and 18, are most commonly associated with precancerous or cancerous cell growth.
“HPV can put women (and men) at risk for precancerous and cancer changes in the cervix, anus, penis, head, neck and throat,” said Alyssa Dweck, a gynecologist in Westchester County, New York.
The HPV vaccine targets those high-risk strains as well as the strains that cause 90 percent of genital warts. (Doctors say everyone who plans on being sexually active should be vaccinated. All adults up to age 45 can get the vaccine.)
Getting diagnosed with HPV can be scary, but as as the CDC points out, it’s not worth panicking over, either:
Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts are not the same as the types of HPV that can cause cancers.
Regular check-ins with your doctor can help you monitor your health and keep on top of any potential issues.
While there’s no cure for the virus itself, many strains of HPV go away on their own within a few years. If not, a doctor can treat the symptoms of the infection, in some cases removing any visible warts and abnormal cells in the cervix.
The most common HPV symptoms are genital warts.
These warts usually appear near the sex organs of men and women and can consist of a single bump or a group of bumps close together, said Sunny Rodgers, a sexologist and the ambassador for the American Sexual Health Association.
“They can have different shapes — some are raised, others flat, and in groups, they can look like the head of a cauliflower,” she said. “They can be flesh tone, white, pink, and red in color. In some cases, the warts are itchy.”
Certain types of the virus are more likely to cause skin warts on the hands. Other forms of HPV are more likely to cause genital warts, and a few strains of the virus can result in both.
HPV is spread through intimate skin-to-skin contact.
HPV is typically spread through vaginal or anal sex and oral contact. It can be passed on even if your partner isn’t showing any symptoms.
“It’s transmitted via skin to skin contact, so one doesn’t necessarily have to engage in intercourse to contract it,” Dweck said. “To be blunt, HPV can potentially be transmitted through hand jobs, oral pleasure, anal sex and of course vagina-penis sex. And keep in mind, condoms are not fully protective since they don’t cover the full genital skin surface.”
Men get it, too.
Research published in 2014 found that 69% of men studied had HPV. Unfortunately, men aren’t routinely tested like women are. In fact, there’s currently no approved test for HPV in men.
“Men can be tested during an anal pap smear if they request that the tests include one for HPV,” Rodgers told HuffPost earlier this year. “However, an anal pap smear is not usually included in male exams unless the individual has tested positive for HIV.”
Stigmas about STIs don’t have to define your life.
It’s frustrating when people use STIs as a cheap punchline to a joke. But STI awareness is growing, which hopefully will make it easier to talk about them.
“What my experience talking about living with an STI for six years has taught me is that people are a lot more empathetic and understanding of STIs in the privacy of a relationship than they are in public conversations,” said Laureen HD, a YouTube content creator in Berlin who makes videos about living with herpes.
The problem with the jokes, she said, is that they reinforce shame and prime people to keep their STI status to themselves.
“For those who cannot find the confidence to open up about their status, and haven’t seen how empathetic people can be, they only have the quips, the jokes and the shaming to rely on for what the response might be if they open up,” she said. “So besides being psychologically and emotionally harmful, it also indirectly reinforces non disclosure.”
Josh Robbins, a sexual health journalist and HIV activist, said he rolls his eyes when he hears stigmatizing jokes, but then tries to use the moment to shift the conversation.
“It’s always interesting that something that so many adults have been diagnosed with becomes a punchline,” he said. “We need people of all ages to talk more about sexually transmitted infections and prevention. It’s time that we try new strategies to curb these epidemics and it’s definitely time we use language that doesn’t stigmatize others.”
Sex Ed for Grown-Ups is a series tackling everything you didn’t learn about sex in school — beyond the birds and the bees. Keep checking back for more expert-based articles and personal stories.