The FriskyThere are few moments in life more heart-stopping than realizing that there is something not right in your panties. A close second are the frantic Google searches you conduct with one shaking hand while aiming a mirror at your crotch with the other.

I was on the toilet when I first felt the strange patches of raised skin. Because they weren’t painful, the alarm took a moment to register. But when I got a closer look at the disturbance — bumpy white growths around the opening of my vagina — I immediately began to cry.

They’re called genital warts because that’s what they look like. I held out hope that I had some kind of simple, unshameful infection that could be cleared up with antibiotics until my gynecologist uttered the phrase. If I hadn’t already felt like retching, that truly disgusting combination of words probably would have done it.

I am not a saint. I have, from time to time, made stupid sexual choices … . But they’re not unusual choices, and pretending that they are only makes the majority of the population feel unrealistically safe from sexual disease.

Genital warts are created by a strain of the human papillomavirus, which most women know as HPV. The good news is that the strain that causes warts is not one of the strains that causes cervical cancer. The bad news is that there is no good news when your crotch is covered with warts.

I felt dirty and utterly tainted, and only the way my gynecologist treated me with complete normalcy kept me from losing it entirely. She assured me that warts are very common (in fact, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, affecting 50 percent of sexually active adults) and treatable through the application of a topical cream. The warts, she warned me, often recur a few times before the immune system begins to effectively fight them off.

She was right to be comforting. The truth is that viruses like non-cancer-causing HPV and herpes are not the worst thing that can happen to you. They’re unpleasant-looking but relatively harmless — you’re not going to die any sooner because you have them. For some, they are painful and annoying, but many people never even get outbreaks or have only one initial outbreak that never comes back. In the case of HPV, there is strong evidence that the body eventually fights off the infection entirely within two years of outbreak. But the stigma and shame of contracting an STI had done their job – at the moment of diagnosis, I felt like my life was over.

HPV can be spread from skin-to-skin contact even while using a condom. That is probably not how I got it. Like a lot of 20-something women, I was not always vigilant with their use. I always intended to use them, nearly always suggested we should, but only sometimes insisted that we do.

When people write about their sex lives publicly, they almost always seem to adhere to the perfect health-class standards of sexual safety. I don’t know who these saintly men and women are, however, because studies consistently show that use of condoms is on the decline, especially among a younger generation.

Well, let me be honest with you — I am not a saint. I have, from time to time, made stupid sexual choices, whether it was going home with a strange man who totally looks like a normal guy, or being too timid to insist on making the right choices to protect my health. But they’re not unusual choices, and pretending that they are only makes the majority of the population feel unrealistically safe from sexual disease. After all, if we believe that the folks who are getting these diseases were behaving in incredibly rare and risky ways, then the threat doesn’t really apply to us.

Since the infection can have an incubation period of weeks, months or even years, a time-span in which I had engaged in more than one one-night stand and a few extended but casual relationships, I wasn’t exactly sure when or from whom I had gotten it.

Nor was there anyone to be angry with. There is no test for HPV, and often no symptoms, meaning that some of you who are reading this almost certainly have the exact same virus I do. Whoever gave it to me could just as easily have had no idea they were carrying it.

Shaming people for not being perfect doesn’t reduce STD rates; it only builds up a wall of secrecy that makes them less likely to disclose their status. Lots of people develop diabetes through their own poor lifestyle choices, but you rarely find one too ashamed to cop to having it.

Although it was similar to the other 23-year-old women I knew, my lifestyle may not have been the norm. But I can guarantee that anyone who has ever made one bad choice about sex could easily have ended up in the same stirrups I did.

Sadly, it usually takes an experience like mine to drive that point home. The good news, for the sizable percentage of women who will one day contract an STI, is that my life was not over. Today I have a partner who either never contracted the virus from me or has no outward symptoms, and after the first two, I have been outbreak-free for years. I eventually felt normal again, even sexy.

I wish I could say I also feel comfortable enough with my experience to come out of the STD closet. Maybe someday I will. But to the other six million people who will become newly infected with HPV this year, I’m out here, all tainted and imperfect. And I’m not judging you.

Photo: iStockphoto

This post originally appeared on The Frisky. Republished with permission.

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  • Truth be told

    I have had herpes for 4 years and here are some quick tips for anyone who needs it.
    1. Take time to deal with it but get over it. It ain’t going away just because you are sad.

    2. Go to the doctor get your prescription and take that one pill every day. Once your body gets used to it you barely have an episode. Staying healthy helps too. Of course this can vary from person to person.

    3. When you date, let the person get to know YOU first then tell them BEFORE any physical activity. I used to wait until date 3 or 4, that way the person knows more about you than “that girl/guy with herpes I had one date with that time”. Then they have the choice to continue to date and you know how they handle relationship issues. I told my boyfriend and he took time to get information for himself. We waited to have sex until he was comfortable. The major plus was that we got to know each other much more before engaging physically.

    Also you don’t have to tell your family but let at least one person know that you are taking medication. Just in case. I told my boyfriend since he obviously knows why I’m taking it. I also have my prescription info on a card in my wallet by my insurance card.

    I love this article for telling the truth about STIs

  • Meow

    Currently dating someone with herpes. We are careful and have never had condomless sex, but I know there is a risk (8%). It’s easier to adjust to when your partner is communicative about outbreaks, and communicative generally.

  • cosmicsistren

    Thanks ladies for sharing your stories. I really appreciated it.

  • Ms. Virgo

    Great article. I must comment though that HPV (which can cause warts, but not always – and sometimes has no symptoms whatsoever especially in men) can be tested for in women. A simple Pap smear will indicate whether you have been exposed to HPV and which “strain.” And yes, it can go away by itself in a couple years. And it can also be transmitted to the same individual again.

    I guess this is the world in which we live now.

  • V

    Ughhh, I had unprotected sex with a guy once and got chlamydia. I was on my period and noticed some swelling and sensitivity down there. I was scared, after my period i went to the doctor and they diagnosed it as a yeast infection and gave me some medication, BUT they also swabbed me for sti testing. They called a few days later and I knew it wasnt good. I had chlamydia and a yeast infection :( He claims he didnt know he had it, I mostly believe him but good grief was I scared. I took my medication and the symptoms disappeared and 3 months later I was retested and negative. I’m glad its not a re-occuring infection but I’m also scared. I discovered you can that you can also contact chlamydia, much like herpes and gential warts, through skin to skin contact and even with a condom which has really made me paranoid now.

    • V

      *** FYI**** we didnt have sex on my period, i just noticed something was up when i was on period 2 weeks later!