Question: I'm a man who was recently diagnosed with genital warts. Where I live, it is not common to have been vaccinated against HPV, and now I'm just thinking that my promiscuous sex life that I love and was so difficult to embrace is just over. I'm feeling very depressed about it and want to know how my sex life should change now.
If you had a similar experience in junior high as my own, sex education was a one-day lecture within the general health class. I did not learn about masturbation, sexual identity, sexual decision making, or the importance of assertive communication within intimate relationships. Instead, I learned how sex was going to kill me.
This death was not going to be quick from a post-orgasm cardiac arrest. No, this death would take its time, slowly filling my body with pus-filled sores until I resembled a biblical leper. And as I lie writhing in pain, shunned by my family and friends, with blood oozing from every orifice, I would take my last breath cursing the day I decided to fornicate.
If this vivid message wasn’t enough, the health teacher dimmed the lights and turned on the slide projector for the visual aids segment. With the click and shuffle of the carousel slide, the first photo was projected onto the screen and was met with gasps from my peers. Featured was a close-up of a penis (circa 1972) with genital warts. There wasn’t just one pinhead-sized wart at the base of the penis. Instead, the warts sprouted like cauliflower, enveloping the entirety of the penis head.
The second shuffling of the carousel projected a herpes outbreak. It was a close-up of a vulva (circa 1966) that looked as though it was hit with buckshot. The tiny red blisters peppered the vulva from pubic bone to anus and glistened from the flash of the camera.
With dual clicks, the carousel rotated once more. Secondary stage syphilitic rash.
Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions.
Infant herpetic conjunctivitis.
I sat wide-eyed and disgusted. My genitals retreated to an internal cavity. I could no longer hear what the teacher was saying. My vision was the only remaining sense that continued to absorb the slideshow of the grotesque.
Finally, there was a blank slide that projected nothing onto the screen. The teacher’s voice interrupted my fixated stare into the light, and with an ominous voice he muttered, “And this is death.”
The lights flickered back on. I felt my skin crawling with pubic lice. I convinced myself my acne was syphilis. I left the room no longer feeling like a sexual being. I was repulsed and ashamed. For the remainder of the year, the carousel of death sat in the corner of the room poised to stigmatize the sinful.
With the amount of scare tactics and myths surrounding sexually transmitted infections, it's no wonder why a diagnosis of HPV can be a devastating blow. It's common to feel anxious about the effects of an STI on our health, and it's common to feel depressed at the thought of being shunned by our community to live the rest of our life like a celibate friar.
But do you know what else is common? HPV.
The human papillomavirus is the most common STI in the US. So common, in fact, the CDC says that without getting the vaccine, almost every sexually-active person will get infected at some point in their life. This is why comedian Ali Wong said, "If you don't have HPV yet, you are fucking a loser."
So congrats on not being a loser in the eyes of Ali Wong, but now what? How can you have HPV and continue to enjoy the sex life you fought so hard to achieve? Fortunately you can. It just takes being a little more proactive and a lot more communicative than what you're possibly accustomed to.
First, if you haven't already, see your doctor to get the warts treated. Genital warts can sometimes go away on their own, but getting a prescription topical cream or getting in-office cryotherapy (freezing the warts) are less invasive methods than if the warts grow in size and number. You can also speak to your doctor about differentiating between warts and other naturally occurring bumps on your genitals. You don't want a panic attack every time you get an ingrown hair, but you do want to treat any new warts that develop.
Second, your communication with potential partners will need to become much more explicit. Disclosing an STI is challenging at first. We fear rejection and judgement, which can lead to not disclosing or avoiding sexual situations altogether. The opposite can occur, too, where we disclose as quickly and as broadly as possible by stating our status in our dating profiles or wearing t-shirts that say, "Ask me about my warts."
There is a place, however, between avoidance and overcompensation. Before becoming sexual with someone, whether that is 30 minutes into your conversation with your Tinder date or right before you plan on taking off your underwear, there needs to be a conversation about sexual health. Having HPV forces you to become a "wart ambassador" in which you are tasked with educating, or at least informing, potential partners about the myths and realities of HPV so everyone can make an informed sexual health decision.
You can talk about how you've had genital warts and had them treated. You can mention how HPV might have gone away on its own, but there's no recommended blood test for you, so you're unsure if you still have a transmissible virus even if you're asymptomatic.
If they're unfamiliar, you can inform them genital warts are not caused by the same strains of HPV (strains 6 and 11) as the strains that cause cervical cancer (strains 16 and 18).
You can discuss safer sex options like how condoms for intercourse can reduce the risk of transmission, but infected areas may not be covered by the latex. But there's also barriered oral sex, mutual masturbation, and non-genital focused BDSM play. You could dress up as clowns and watch each other pee onto balloon animals.
Whatever turns you on.
After these discussions, you'll have some partners who thank you for sharing and are not fazed by your disclosure. The fucking may commence. Other partners may view any STI as a deal breaker. The fucking won't commence. And then others may want to pause and think about it for a while. They may want to do their own research on HPV before making a decision. Consent includes being informed and making the best decision for ourselves in that moment, so we must be patient with those who seek to learn. The fucking may commence at a later date.
So to circle back to your original question as to how your sex life should change now that you have HPV, it changes by being vigilant with what's going on with the appearance of your penis and by clearly communicating your STI history, risks, and risk reduction strategies with new partners. That's it; that's the change.
So go forth, wart ambassador, and challenge the 8th-grade health class scare tactics in the quest to enjoy your sex life once again. There are plenty of partners who will accept you, warts and all.