Like Parlourista Hillary, I too have identified with an episode of “Girls.” I remember having a Hannah moment in college when one of my roommates came home from the campus health center with tears in her eyes. As we sat together on our cheap first apartment furniture and I asked her what was wrong. “I have HPV,” she said through tears, “and there’s no cure.” While I wish I was the one who doled out my own smart, sassy retort, it was my other roomie who jumped in. “Oh. That? Everybody has that. It’s really no big deal.” And just like that, we kept on living as real girls do.
And now that I’ve crawled out from under two final papers for my grad program, I present to you this late, but always on time, commentary on what I call the HPV episode of HBO’s “Girls.” If you like, you can take a moment of silence to protest what are the problematic representations of race (or lack thereof) and privilege in the show. It’s best you get it out of the way so that we can move on to things that transcend race and socioeconomic status – our sexual and reproductive health. When Hannah discovers that she has HPV, aka the human papillomavirus, I knew I was going to keep watching “Girls.” Feeling afraid, ashamed, and utterly freaked out, Hannah finds some peace of mind when she’s told that she’s not alone in having HPV. Her friend Jessa has multiple strains of the virus and according to her, “all adventurous women do.”
While the “all adventurous women” statement is sounds a bit more romantic than a conversation about an STD ought to be, the fictitious Jessa has a point. HPV is ridiculously common and if you consider having even a little bit of sex to be adventurous, well then yes, most adventurous women do indeed have HPV. To be a bit more precise, more than 3 out of 4 women will contract HPV in their lifetime and about half of all men. Finding a sexually active woman who doesn’t have HPV is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We should all be trying our damndest to prevent the spread of STDs but where HPV is concerned, accepting how common the disease is might be the first step toward curbing its proliferation. The problem is that most people who have HPV don’t know it. Unlike some other STDs, a man or woman with HPV might not ever experience any symptoms resulting from the virus. Multiple strains of the disease can live within a person for their entire lives wholly unnoticed. However, with all of those different strains, you don’t know which you have and how it will affect your body. There are some real consequences to HPV that you should be aware of since it’s going around like the common cold and all.
On the inconvenient, embarrassing, painful-yet-treatable side of the spectrum are warts. HPV is the virus that causes common hand and foot warts (plantar’s warts) and the more troubling genital warts. According to Planned Parenthood, “about 40 types of HPV can infect the genital area — the vulva, vagina, cervix, rectum, anus, penis, or scrotum” affecting 500,000 - 1 million people each year. If you can believe it, those types of HPV are considered “low-risk” because warts are treatable. They might go away on their own (thanks immune system!), respond to prescription medication, or be frozen off via cryotherapy. It might be a good idea to read up on the symptoms of genital warts so that you and your partner can seek treatment ASAP. No one wants to suffer from warts in some of the most sensitive parts of their body but there is a silver lining to all this – genital warts is one of the most common ways an individual will know that she or he has HPV.
There is no HPV test for men and women often find out from the appearance of warts or because of an abnormal pap test. The abnormal pap is significant because it alerts your doctor to pre-cancerous changes in your body’s cells. Yes, certain strains of HPV can lead to cancer in the genitals and throat bringing us firmly into the scary, life-threatening, serious-yet-preventable “high-risk” category of HPV. Here is where I want you to breathe and chill – yes, cervical cancer sounds none too pleasant but your doctor can monitor cellular changes in your vagina, administer treatments, and if you do turn out to have cancer, early detection will likely save your life. Google is your friend and sites like the CDC or Planned Parenthood can help arm you with the information you need to talk to your healthcare provider at your next pap. You are going for regular well-woman checkups complete with STD tests and a pap, right?
You might have noticed that I said HPV was preventable, right? Yes, while the de-virginized among us are probably already walking around with HPV tagging along for the ride, preteen girls and boys are eligible for the HPV vaccine to stop several strains of the virus before all that warts and cancer nonsense even gets started. According to the CDC, HPV vaccines offer the greatest health benefits to individuals before they engage in any type of sexual activity, but it’s still recommended for males and females through their early 20s. Unfortunately, there are a number of parents who won’t allow their children to be vaccinated against HPV either because they’re against vaccinations on principle or they believe that such a vaccine equals giving permission for your child to have sex.
HPV is very common but our collective shame around STDs keeps us ignorant of the realities that could help us prevent and treat the disease. I’m glad that at least in this area, “Girls” is living up to the hype of being a different, real and ground-breaking show for young women. I love the message that HPV is a reality of life much like the other issues the characters are wrestling with as they grow up. It’s like yes, okay, you’ve got HPV, now what are you going to do about it?