A month ago, if you had told me Michael Douglas’s name would be strongly associated with sexual activity, I’d have assumed Hollywood was planning an ill-fated sequel to "Fatal Attraction." His admission his throat cancer was possibly caused by HPV, contracted through oral sex, has been all over the Internet -- in fact, the STD was one of the leading trends on Twitter.
And for that, I say thank you to him.
The more we talk about STDs, the better. In order to destigmatize these diseases and promote sexual health, there is much that needs to be addressed.
When I was diagnosed with HSV-1 (cold sores) of the genitals, I didn’t understand how I contracted it. I had been tested for STDs and always spoke with my partners about their testing before having sex. How could this happen when I used condoms and thought I did everything right? If it weren’t for the painful sores in my nether regions, I’d assume the doctor’s diagnosis was a mistake.
But while writing out my prescriptions for Lidocaine gel and Valtrex, she explained I contracted herpes from oral sex -- and might have had it for years. In fact, so many people have HSV-1 (often seen as sores on the mouth), it isn’t part of standard STD screenings.
“So basically, I’m a walking talking advertisement that oral sex isn’t safe sex?” I asked her. She didn’t laugh.
Well, duh, you might be thinking. I’m almost 30, and I should know better. But when I opened up to my friends about my experience, I found many of them didn’t know herpes could be transmitted from mouth to genitals -- and all of them had a cold sore at one point in their life, or had been with someone who had them.
“I’m glad I’ve been so selective about people I’ve been with,” one of my friends said, assuming this was a consequence because I’ve, well, been around the block, to use the cliché. But no, I explained to her, anyone can contract it, even the most careful, even those who haven’t had sex.
And it isn’t just HSV people are confused about. In conversations about sexual activity amongst my friends, the consequences of HPV (human papillomavirus, of which there are 40 types that affect the genitals) are rarely discussed. These are all highly educated young women. We can talk for hours about the merits of Madame Bovary -- so why are we so tentative about talking about risk?
“I’ve never thought to disclose,” one friend with HPV said. Other people with HPV I’ve spoken with responded similarly. “We all have it at some point,” another friend said. “It’s not a big deal,” said another.
And though I’ve decided to always share my HSV status with partners, I admit a level of uncertainty when it comes to disclosure. What is the line between keeping personal information private, and protecting another person’s body? The idealist in me likes to think if you’re going to bump uglies together, you can talk about a communicable disease. The realist in me knows this isn’t always possible. But I do stand by this: if we, as a society, are less fearful about this sort of discussion, there’s a greater chance we’ll protect our partners and ourselves.
Case in point. Recently, I shared with a potential sexual partner that I had HSV-1. Several reasonable questions ensued, like “What is it?” and “What is the risk to me if we have sex?” I answered the questions as calmly as I could.
“I have something to share too,” he said. He then told me he had molluscum contagiosum, a skin disease that causes small lesions. I had never heard of it. I asked the same questions he had of me. When I inquired if he’d have disclosed if I hadn’t first, he responded "Probably not. I never have before." When I went home and Googled it, I learned it was highly transmittable through skin-to-skin contact. I could have contracted it from a hand job or blowjob, or even the friction of my thigh rubbing against him.
Though I was disappointed in his response, I understood his reaction. There is tremendous stigma surrounding STDs. When I was diagnosed, my first instinct was, “I’ll never know love; I’ll never again have sex; I’m going to die alone.” At the time, I was lucky enough to have a supportive partner who helped me overcome these feelings; now single, I fight them on my own when they resurface. In fact, if I were the woman I aspire to be, this article wouldn’t be written anonymously, but would have my name and e-mail attached, an understanding to readers if you want to talk about this, this is how you can reach me.
I’d like to think I’ve made an impact, however small, by having a conversation with this man with whom I’d hoped to have sex. Ultimately, he decided not to see me again, and if it had to do with my revelation, I’ll never know. It was an important conversation to have; I don’t regret it. And hopefully, by seeing how we could have a calm discussion about health and risks, he’ll be more open with future partners.
The impact of Michael Douglas’s announcement will be much more significant. “Are we allowed to talk about this in a family newspaper?” stated a blog connected to the Washington Post. Yes, is the answer, a resounding yes. It must be talked about in a family newspaper. Enough of the shame surrounding this issue. As Salt-n-Pepa so succinctly put it: “Let’s talk about sex.”
But the dialogue needs to be longer lasting than a headline of the week. Discussion needs to occur in sex education classes, in dorms rooms, amongst children and parents, and in media outlets like xoJane. The result should not be fear, but agency over our bodies and the sexual situations we will most likely find ourselves in. And if the worst-case scenario occurs and you contract something, or you already have something, there should be an understanding that you’re not alone.
For it is an odd but wonderful feeling, to have kinship over an STD with a 68-year old man I know only from the movies.