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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012

My Partner Has HPV. Should We Wait to Have Sex?

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I have been talking to this girl for several months. I really like her and want to continue to see her. We have not yet had sex; she has told me that she has HPV, and she and I have been hesitant about going through with it. She is scared I will get infected, and I am little worried myself. She went to the doctor, and they told her to come back in six months for another checkup. She has no signs or symptoms from it. Will I get it if we go through with it? Should I wait until March to have sexual intercourse with her?

It’s really great that your partner told you about her HPV infection. This shows that she is honest, cares about your well-being and is able to talk openly about difficult topics—all good qualities for a strong relationship. Sounds like a keeper to me!

As a sexuality educator, I have mixed feelings about HPV (which is short for human papillomavirus). On one hand, it’s an extremely common virus that usually doesn’t cause any harm. Recent studies have shown that the majority of sexually active people will contract HPV at some point in their lives, and most people will clear the virus from their bodies naturally, without even knowing that they had it. On the other hand, a few types of HPV are linked to cancer, including cervical cancer, anal cancer and oral cancer. These types of cancer are preventable and/or treatable if they are regularly screened for, but cancer is still a very scary thing. It’s good to be cautious about HPV, but I don’t think that an HPV infection should put a screeching halt to anyone’s sex life.

There are two ways that women usually find out about an HPV infection. The first is if they have genital warts, which are caused by HPV. Since you say your partner has no signs or symptoms, I’m guessing that this was not the case for her. The second way is through a routine Pap smear, which is a screening for pre-cancerous cells on the cervix that is done every one to three years during a gynecological exam. If the Pap smear comes back with cells that look abnormal, this is a sign of HPV infection. Health care providers usually want to monitor or remove these abnormal cells, which may be the reason that your partner was told to return in six months. If your partner follows her health care provider’s recommendations, then HPV-related cervical cancer is completely preventable.

So what does that mean for your sex life? Having sex always carries some risk with it; only you and your partner can decide how much risk you're willing to accept. The important thing is to make an informed decision. HPV is spread through skin-to-skin contact, so any genital-to-genital, genital-to-anus or genital-to-mouth contact can potentially transmit it. However, using condoms, dental dams or other latex barriers lowers your risk a lot. If you do contract HPV from your partner, the most likely scenario is that the virus won’t affect you at all. Getting regular sexual health exams and letting your health care provider know that you’ve been exposed to HPV can help make sure that this is the case. Outside of Pap smears, screenings for HPV-related cancer aren’t routine, so this is something that you would have to request during a visit to your health care provider.

My favorite website for accurate information on HPV is the American Social Health Association. For more information on any of the things I’ve touched on in this column, please check it out.

Laura Anne Stuart owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side. She has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than 15 years. Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.