Girls, Women and HPV

On the HBO show Girls, HPV went viral, but is there really less stigma about STDs?

In 2005, I learned I had HPV. The overwhelming emotion I felt was relief. I was relieved it wasn’t the warty kind that shows – it was the asymptomatic kind that turns into cervical cancer if you don’t catch it. And mine was bad enough that I had to have a cone biopsy and then part of my cervix scraped off in a LEEP procedure. Yet, with legs in stirrups and a needle in the vagina, I was still relieved not to have any physical evidence. Sick, right?

We don’t like to talk about STDs, which is why what happened on Girls is so interesting and why I started thinking back to how I felt in 2005. On the show, the lead character, Hannah, learns she has HPV. She takes to Twitter and after a few drafts types: “All adventurous women do,” which is something her friend said when Hannah shared the news.

Emily Nussbaum’s recent post in the New Yorker’s Culture Desk makes great points about the significance of this moment in TV history. She writes, “… Hannah’s telling other people – and of course herself – that her worst experiences are not humiliations and stains: they’re adventures. (They’re material.)”

It makes for great TV, but what does this scene say about how real women talk about STDs? On the one hand, here I am using my own adventure with HPV as material, right? And there were tons and tons of post-show “All adventurous women do” tweets. But, if I – and I’m a perpetual over-sharer – am still sort of unsure how I feel about sending my own story into the public realm, what does that say about the stigma surrounding STDs?

About half of all men and more than three out of four women have some form of HPV -all the adventurous ladies, put your hands up! – at some point in their lives. Now I’m not a mathematician, but it seems to me that if so many people have some version of this thing, we should be able to talk about it. But we don’t.

The symptomatic among us eventually hit up a doctor, find out the truth and get treated. The asymptomatic among us that have health insurance, or access to a clinic where we can get our annual exams, eventually go in for a pap smear and learn the news. The unlucky, uninsured women without access to testing or treatment -or even basic knowledge about HPV – are at high risk for cancer. Cancer that could be totally prevented if people had easy access to testing and the HPV vaccine.

The ultimate message of Girls is empowerment – like women reclaiming the word bitch. But should we be empowered? Is acquiring HPV an “adventure?”

I got HPV because, like many women, I was on the pill and, in the moment, didn’t even mention a condom. I was either too embarrassed, too afraid of rejection or too trusting of a guy who seemed fine – and in his mind was fine because as a guy he had no way to know he had HPV.

What it comes down to is “Hey, join the adventurous ladies club!” is not a good message for the 25% of women who don’t yet have HPV. The better message might be that sex can be weird and embarrassing, and no matter what Trojan commercials tell you, condoms aren’t sexy. But you know what else isn’t sexy? An STD. Warts. Cancer.

Ultimately, I’m glad Girls started the conversation, and I don’t watch HBO for PSAs, but I do think empowerment would be better defined as having the lady balls to protect yourself in the first place.

Photo: HBO