Why is it TMI and uncouth for a woman to say she got HPV from her husband? Would it be equally TMI for her to admit that she got, say, chicken pox from him? I ask because Ayelet Waldman posted a few tweets today about HPV, in the aftermath of Michele Bachmann whining that HPV vaccinations intrude on parents’ rights (sure, enjoy your polio and measles also). Waldman said she got HPV in a monogamous marriage, and ended up with cancerous cervical lesions. The New York Observer called it “a new height in oversharing.”* New York Mag’s Daily Intel also covered it. And people on Twitter were like, OMG TMI BE A LADY YOU’RE BEING PUNISHED FOR BEING SUCH A SLUT SO BE QUIET ABOUT IT.
But… why? Why is this the height of an over-share? If someone says, “I had precancerous skin lesions that could have developed into melanoma,” no one is like “OMG HEIGHT OF THE OVERSHARE PLEASE STOP I AM EATING.” If I told you that when I was little I got chicken pox from a kid at school — which I did! — no one is going to flip out about it. If a well-known writer tweets, “I got the flu from my husband and it fucking sucked and if I was older or didn’t have decent medical care or had a complicating health condition I could have died from that infection, and anyone who tries to block flu shots is an irresponsible fuckface,” people would be like, “Yeah.”
But Ayelet Waldman says she got one of the most common viruses in the United States from her husband and we’re all disgusted because… it’s sexually transmitted? And what, we’re all shocked that a mother of four who writes about how much she likes having sex with her husband has had sex? We think it’s way worse to transmit a disease sexually than by kissing or holding hands or touching a subway pole?
Here is some shocking news: People have sex. And when people have sex, body fluids sometimes mingle, and skin touches skin, and things get passed on. HPV, as it turns out, is a wily little fucker that gets passed on a whole lot. At least half of all sexually active people have it. By the age of 50, at least 80% of women will have HPV. And not that it would be ok to shame Ayelet (or anyone) about a disease that was less prevalent, but it looks especially silly when the OMG TMI!!! stuff is coming in response to a disease that a huge portion of the population has or will have.
And yet no one really talks about it from a personal perspective, because it’s sex-related and therefore shameful.
Not everyone gets cancer from HPV. Not everyone with HPV will even see an irregular pap smear in their lives. A lot of the time, HPV does absolutely nothing.
But sometimes it causes cancer. And that’s no joke. And putting a real face on an incredibly common, sometimes cancer-causing disease is important. It shouldn’t have to be brave — it shouldn’t be any more brave than saying you had chicken pox or the flu or melanoma — but it is. And it’s shameful that in the face of what should be a fairly benign statement — “I contracted one of the most common viruses in the United States” — the media response is “eew” and “too much!” and “stop talking you slut.”
You guys all realize that this is the reason folks like Bachmann are able to use a totally responsible HPV vaccine policy as a political battering ram, right? You guys all realize that this kind of shame-based response to the statement “I have HPV” is why too many women sit alone in a gynecologist’s office lacking a support system when they find out they have a potentially cancer-causing virus, and why a lot of men don’t even realize they can get it, putting them at risk for anal and penile cancer? You guys all realize that the implication that you get HPV from being slutty and people who make “bad decisions” don’t deserve respect, let alone health care, is why social conservatives are winning the battle when it comes to every social program from food stamps to social security to welfare to abortion rights to basic health care coverage to unemployment?
This isn’t just “Ayelet Waldman mentioned she has a cervix, everyone grossed out.” This is why, culturally, we are losing.
*UPDATE: So, re-reading the Observer article after some yoga and a few deep breaths, I now recognize that Foster was criticizing Waldman for tweeting the chain of how she got HPV, which outed others as having the virus (a tweet she has since deleted). Which is a fair criticism — I can see how it was an oversight on Waldman’s part and not an intentional violation of privacy, but that’s ultimately what it was, and she did the upstanding thing of removing the offending information. What’s not cool — and what other commentators have done, and what I initially read Foster’s piece to include, even though he didn’t actually mean it this way — is suggesting that it’s inappropriate to discuss having HPV, or that having HPV is gross or shameful. At the end of the Observer piece, Foster is pretty clear that he doesn’t think anyone should be shamed for having the virus; I got stuck on the “height of overshare” part, which he intended differently than I read it. All of which is to say, a lot of these responses are totally fucked up! But the Observer isn’t the only (or by any stretch the worst) target, and my vitriol against them was misdirected.
But still fuck the “eew TMI I’m eating” people. You people are assholes.