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We’re Not Invinsible: Living with STDs

As Bates continues on after Sex Week, it’s important to be aware of how you’re conducting yourself sexually. This is a topic that carries such a heavy stigmatism that I’ve chosen to write this article anonymously. If that in and of itself doesn’t already touch upon how detrimental these diseases can be, perhaps the content of this article will. We are not invincible. We may go through our lives unwittingly thinking we are, but we aren’t. Our bodies are susceptible to any and all diseases, and yet we still go on thinking: “It won’t be me. It can’t be me.” But it can. After getting my first Pap smear at the gynecologist this year, I found out that I have high-risk HPV (human papillomavirus), a common STD. I was distraught and scared. I didn’t know what to do. I had no symptoms at all. It wasn’t something on my radar; I thought it would never happen to me until it did. HPV can be contracted by unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and there are two types: high-risk and low-risk. It’s important to know both men and women can get HPV. However, there are no current tests for men. High-risk types are detected by Pap smears and cause abnormal cell changes that may lead to cancer. Low-risk types do not lead to cancer but can cause genital warts. Because HPV is a virus, your body can fight it and it usually does so within a few months to a few years. If you’ve been vaccinated, you have a better chance of fighting it off faster. It’s also said to clear quicker in men than women, although many men do not know that they have it unless they show physical symptoms. I haven’t been the most careful in the past; I’ve had unprotected sex with people not thinking anything of it. It’s impossible to know who I got HPV from because the virus can live dormant in your body for months. I had asked my partners if they were tested, but none of them could’ve been tested for HPV. Everyone should get tested, especially if you’ve had unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex. In the case of HPV and so many other STDs, even if you’ve had only one partner, if that partner has been with other people there’s a possibility you could have something. When I found out I had HPV, I felt very alone. It was hard to tell my current partner and it was even harder to come to terms with the fact that I’d been very naive and irresponsible in the past. I now know that I am not alone nor invincible, but that I need to be more careful and always use protection. You always hear people say: “Use condoms!” and “Don’t get pregnant!”, but condoms are never stressed as defenses against STDs in the same way. And as a person with a highly effective form of birth control, I thought condoms were a precaution I could skip every once in a while because I wouldn’t be pregnant. I remember feeling uneasy one morning, thinking something was wrong, and then I felt a bump. Naturally, I panicked. But then I assured myself it was razor burn, anything but what it could be: a genital wart. I chose to ignore it because what were the chances? Pretty high, believe it or not. According to the American Sexual Health Association, roughly 80 percent of sexually active people contract HPV at some point in their lives. That’s well over half of the sexually active population. And they may be transmitting HPV to any of their sexual partners, knowingly or not. Everyone cannot be in the 20 percent. Not only is that mathematically impossible, but it’s also a hard truth that no one wants to accept. And personally, I got lucky. My strain of HPV caused no worry for my OB/GYN. She said that it will resolve itself and likely not manifest again, but I have to live with the constant question of, “what if could it?” It’s weird to think you could be putting yourself in danger every time you have sex with someone. It’s also not something people tell you. Instead, sex is coveted and kept private. That is totally okay that’s your prerogative. However, it cannot anyone’s prerogative to keep the facts of STDs in the dark. These diseases should not be ignored due to petty stigmas, due to the fear of being shamed. Because guess what? If 80 percent of people are affected by HPV, chances are the people that you fear will judge you probably have it too. I’ve had both friends and family come forward and offer their support because they’ve had experiences with STDs too. These are people I look up to and who inspire me every day. They made me feel heard. My own mother offered me this advice: “It happens! It’s embarrassing but there’s something called ‘the heat of the moment.’” And unfortunately, that’s the truth. We can get carried away. But we must encourage each other to be more aware. The more we choose to ignore the facts, the more rampant these diseases will run amok. We don’t want a pandemic to keep on our hands, and I’m afraid we already have one. You can get checked under your insurance at the health center. Schedule an appointment by calling 207-786-6199 or email healthservices@bates.edu.