Within the first four minutes of comedian Ali Wong’s hour-long Netflix stand-up special, Baby Cobra, she reveals that she has HPV with the same nonchalance as when declaring she’s gluten-free. It’s no big deal.
“Everybody has HPV, OK? Everybody has it. It’s OK, come out already. If you don’t have it, you gon’ get it. It’s coming.”
She has a point. The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that around 75 percent of sexually active men and women will get HPV at some point in their lives, with the highest rates of infection occurring between the ages of 15 and 24. It’s one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the country. Yet Wong’s HPV manifesto is still refreshing, brave and totally badass.
That’s because unlike so many other aspects of our sex lives, firsthand experiences with STIs are not likely to be discussed over drinks with your besties. Rather, we often keep these experiences to ourselves, where they morph into dark, shameful, isolating secrets—as if getting chlamydia is akin to becoming a sexual pariah.
It’s this mindset that feeds the stigma associated with STIs. The truth is, there’s a good chance one of your friends currently has or has had an STI. According to Statistics Canada, one in seven Canadians aged 14 to 59 have genital herpes, and the reported rates of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea have been steadily rising since the 1990s.
Sex educators, health counselors and sex positive advocates all agree that the best way to bust the stigma is talk about it. “It’s really important to be open about it because they’re really common,” says 29-year-old Kaleigh Trace, a sex educator in Halifax (read her experience with HPV below). “I don’t think the social shame we attribute to STIs is in line with how common they are.”
Last year, New York-based Ella Dawson started a blog about living with genital herpes. (Posts include “What happens after you tell the internet you have herpes” and “How I lost my post-herpes virginity.”) Though the 24-year-old’s candidness invigorated trolls—who revelled in calling her a “reckless slut”—she’s become a role model for other young women living with the virus, and ever received a letter from Hillary Clinton thanking her for speaking out against the stigma.
In the no-BS spirit of Dawson’s blog, we asked four women for their takes on living with an STI.
“I moved to Toronto when I was in my early 20s. I had broken up a boyfriend and I began sleeping with a lot of people. It was definitely fun and empowering for me at the time. I started dating this guy and we stopped using condoms. He assured me under every circumstance he was STI-free. [After we stopped seeing each other], I thought I had this really gnarly yeast infection plus turbo UTI. I tried over the counter medication, and that did not work. I didn’t know what was going on until I got tested for STIs and learned it was chlamydia. I was so thrown off. I’m really safe sexually and always made sure to take care of my body, but I guess there were a couple slip-ups. Of course, then there was the amazing conversation I had to have with this guy who I was messing around with without condoms: ‘Hey, I have to let you know that I have chlamydia, so you should get that checked immediately. Sorry, have a nice life!’ He was so shocked and there were about five minutes where I felt ashamed. Then I snapped out of that and was like ‘No, he did it too without the condom.’ It’s so important to remember that it took at least two people in order for you to get it. As long as everyone is consenting, everyone made a choice.
Chlamydia is easy to deal with. You take a few pills, take some time off from work if you can, and then you’re better. There’s nothing about it that’s dirty. You can still come out on top as the sexual goddess that you are.”
“I contracted HPV a few years ago. It wasn’t as talked about at that time. It was really the beginning of the HPV awareness period that I would say we’re in right now. I was really terrified and there wasn’t great information out there. I didn’t have the job that I do now, as a sex educator, so I didn’t really know where to get information about it. Now, when I host workshops, I try to mention offhandedly that I have had HPV so that it opens up the floor up for people to feel more comfortable to talk about their own experiences.
One of the misconceptions about HPV is whether or not you’ll have the virus forever. They say the virus clears your body if you don’t show symptoms for a year. Since I had HPV in the past, I don’t feel the need to disclose every time I have sex with a new person. If I showed symptoms or if I had herpes, which never leaves your body, it would be different. Another misconception is that you can’t contract it orally. If someone has HPV and you perform oral sex on them, it does increase your chance of getting throat cancer. There’s a huge misconception about all STIs that oral sex is safer.
It’s really entrenched in our culture to shame STIs. For a long time, it was totally commonplace to say ‘are you clean?’ in terms of not having an STI. I like comparing STIs to other illnesses: not ideal, but not going to ruin your life. It’s a way to remind us that our bodies get sick in so many places.”
“A few years ago, I ended up contracting genital herpes. [When I found out,] I was angry, sad and terrified because all of a sudden I had this new status as a less-than person. The Planned Parenthood rep said it to me like it was the most obvious thing: ‘This isn’t a big deal, I see six cases of this a day.’ But for me, it was a completely new world. I told a couple of my close friends, the guy who gave it to me and another person I was seeing at the time.
I didn’t really understand what herpes was. I run in relatively sex positive circles and even in those communities, I just never had a conversation about it. One of the most helpful things was reading Ella Dawson’s blog. It’s hard to talk about herpes because it cuts down your dating pool and you’re seen as this dirty thing, even though many people get cold sores and it’s from the same virus. Some people overreact like crazy. I had one guy, before I even had this status in my life, where he didn’t want to hang out with me because there was a picture of me on the internet that made it look like I had a cold sore. People talk about ‘hook-up culture’ and if it’s normal for people to have more than one partner, then we need to talk about STIs.
If you’re newly diagnosed, it’s not the end of the world. It’s OK to be sad about it and mourn a different kind of life, where you don’t feel like you’re walking around with a secret all the time, but just know that it’s not your fault and don’t beat up yourself over it.”
“During one of my very first sexual encounters, I got genital herpes. I’ve had it for around 10 years now. When I found out, it was a cold panic and the days after it was ‘OK, well, I’ve never really had a relationship and everything I see on TV is that they’re this spontaneous love affair and I’m never going to have that. I just need to accept that the people I sleep with are going to be people who already love me. I’m just going to have to find a way to make sure they already love me before we have that conversation.’ I was young, and it turns out that’s totally not true.
I called my best friend from home. We made a nickname up for it so we wouldn’t have to use the word. We called it “clouds.” Because the word “herpes” is in itself a punchline, I didn’t want to use that word about myself.
Herpes has really helped me weed out some assholes. There will be moments where I’ll be dating someone and I’ll go on the third date and I’ll think to myself, Can I trust them with this information? and if my gut says no, well then this isn’t going to be a thing.
The partners I have had have been very supportive and asked all the right questions. My advice for everyone, if your partner tells you [they have herpes] is to ask questions, take some time and accept that your partner will probably want to talk about it. Don’t be the person that just clams up and doesn’t know what to say.
I think [eliminating the stigma] really starts in elementary school. I have these flashbacks to sex ed in grade 7 and the focus of those teachings is how to prevent herpes, here are the symptoms, here are the risks. They teach us that it’s this monster to be afraid of and that you should always fight against, that we have this virtue that we need to protect. But they never say how common herpes is. It’s not something to be ashamed of. I think teaching kids that this is a life you can manage and you’re going to have to face at some point in your life is really important.”
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