Thanks for reading Can We Talk?, a sex and relationships column that aims to tackle the burning questions about sex, dating, relationships, and breakups that you’re too afraid to ask your partner — or maybe even your besties. Last time, relationship therapist Moraya Seeger DeGeare, LMFT, helped someone who was nervous to ask their partner to explore their open relationship more. Today, we hear from one reader about whether or not they should disclose to a new partner that they have HPV.
Do you have a dilemma or question you’d like to see answered as part of a future Can We Talk? Submit it here.
I’ve been seeing this new girl, and I'm sooo into her. We haven’t slept together yet, but I'm definitely interested in making it happen soon. However, I am completely spiraling because I recently got an HPV diagnosis. My doctor told me I don’t need to disclose it to partners unless I want to because, given my symptoms and health history, my risk of passing it on is relatively low and because the condition is so common. Hearing this from my doc made me feel like it was "no big deal," but it feels huge. Do other people really hear news like this and not freak out?
I personally feel like not sharing that I have HPV would be dishonest. I identify as a white, bisexual female, and my new partner is a person of color — I think this is an added layer, as I know there are racial disparities when it comes to HPV-related medical issues. Could I be doing some major harm here?
However, I’m scared that if I do tell her, she'll run away. Meanwhile, my mind is completely fixated on the idea that I can never date again with this news. Will I always feel like I have something bad inside me like I do now? I’m thinking of not saying anything and just asking her to use a dental dam, but I’ve honestly never used one before and worry it will be weird. I’ve also heard that dental dams aren’t totally effective in preventing getting HPV, but don’t know for sure what the deal is.
I feel scared that if I open up more, it’s going to make me less sexy to her. I think we have a deep connection already, so that would suck.
To add just one more thing to the pile, I have a sexual trauma history that I have really worked on in therapy, and I know that is getting mixed up in all of this. I am so confused and overwhelmed — and also somehow still horny? I want to do the right thing, but I don’t even know what that is anymore. What should I do?
Sometimes our brains look for things that confirm our deepest fears. Sometimes these fears are based on a false view of ourselves, maybe coming from something said to you once about how they saw you. That’s the thing with trauma, it’s not always just about the event, but how the event changes how we see the world… and how we see ourselves.
That deep pain can get lodged in our body. I don’t know the details of your sexual trauma, but it would be incredibly normal — even after you have worked on healing — to feel like you messed up in some way. As if you intentionally put yourself in a situation to contract HPV. After your sexual trauma until the deeper healing was in motion you might have blamed yourself for being in a situation that got you hurt, or staying in an abusive relationship for so long. 1 in 5 women experience rape, and 1 in 3 women experience intimate partner violence, it sadly is that common, you are one of many, not alone in this at all. And although you did not name that your sexual abuse was from a past partner, if it is, I wonder if that is adding to your fear of causing harm now.
So when your doctor dismissed your desire to share with your partner, they were asking you to do something that does not align with who you are. And they were confirming a shameful false-belief that you have been carrying around. We live in a society that more often than not blames the survivor, slowing down the healing, or honestly causing more harm after a traumatic event. Even during a rape kit, survivors are often asked how short their skirt was or if they should have drank that much. Worse, survivors even when they are minors are directly blamed for leading the perpetrator on. These words are especially painful when they come from a loved one.
This is my professional assessment but yours is more important. Let me ask you: Why do you think this is feeling so hard? After all, you've been let off the hook. You can do nothing. Go along like you did not know this to be true. If that were an option for you emotionally, you would not feel stuck right now. Sometimes when we are feeling fixated on something, we need to lean all the way into the spiral. You can set a timer, grab a journal and start the timer, and just run those thoughts out to the very end.
Once the timer beeps and you've had a chance to feel your feelings, ask yourself: What is the very worst possibility of what might happen? You share with them that you tested positive for HPV, and they yell and scream and say they liked you, but now that they know you have this (incredibly common) diagnosis, they're through? And the deepest fear of all might be that their reaction will show you more about who they are shatter the illusion of a perfect match. When we push to the very end of our fear spirals, sometimes the path can become nearly unrecognizable. If you know this person and you can’t actually imagine them having a negative reaction that would have you thinking differently of them, trust that. Bring yourself back to the facts. We often follow the fear and shame and many people stop with them, but it's important to root yourself in what you know for certain.
So that brings me to this other side of the potential spiral you’re going through, that lives within vulnerability. How about you tell someone whose thoughts and opinions you trust and value and they listen? Assuming you tell someone with half a heart, they'll likely have a grounded caring response that directly challenges the shame you are carrying around. Your body might even regulate itself a bit seeing how unrattled they are. This is why sharing our deepest fears and shame and then experiencing continued belonging can be so powerful.
But, really, you're not alone. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world. According to the MN Department of Health, “More than 90% of sexually active men and 80% of sexually active women will be infected with HPV in their lifetime.”
Heather Bartos, OB-GYN, the founder of MindShift Medicine says that even though HPV is common it’s important to note that there are risks associated with it, including genital warts and certain types of cancer. Although there are varying opinions in the medical community, most doctors agree that it should be up to the patient as to whether they share the information, particularly because men can't be tested and most (9 out of 10) HPV infections clear on their own or later become undetectable. However, again, if it's not sitting right with you in your particular situation, you should absolutely listen to that (particularly because your partner likely can be tested and because they may want to look into getting the HPV vaccine if they don't have it already — yes, even if they already have HPV, it can be helpful). Remember, talking is good and can help reduce stigma.
Shame can be a huge disconnector from being healthy in relationships to others, romantic or not. So to battle that shame, I want to help you shift from “What will she think about me?” to “How do I want to be with people as I move in the world?” You mentioned that you are white and your partner is a person of color. So much choice is lost as a person of color in the medical system, which it sounds like you have already begun to acknowledge. Say your partner identifies as a queer Black or trans woman. You're taking away her choice with her body to know what she is being exposed to, which is actually doing a lot more potential harm to her mental health and feeling of freedom than their potential HPV exposure. Giving her the choice with her body could build a deep connection in your relationship, and simply help them feel more comfortable with you. As the person with more social power being part of the dominate culture, you sharing makes it so you are not holding on to information or making choices for your partner that are motivated by your own self-protection. You could even ask if you they want support or company if they want to get tested (I also recommend coming to them with some information from your OB-GYN or the CDC as you share this with them). A lot is unknown and has potentially not been talked about in terms of your sexual health history and it would be nice if you are the one to start these important conversations.
By being transparent you are signaling to them how you are willing to talk about the complexities of health, race, sexuality, and gender. Huge conversations that you can take one step at a time. Or perhaps these are conversations you are already having and you are now bringing in more personal vulnerability to the table. The book Magnificent Sex shows us that science and research say the best sex you will have is based on trust and effort. Now, this effort might look like opening up about something that feels heavy for you — and once you do so with HPV, you also can discuss your worries regarding using protection, such as a condom or dental dams and do some research together (to get you started, Cleveland Clinic has this guide).
As you are figuring out if this relationship is turning into something more, it’s normal to have moments of stress to navigate together. It’s okay that it's feeling big for you now, even if the conversation ends up being not very big later. Your partner might have been misinterpreting your avoidance of getting more physical, and this could clear a lot of things up. They might even feel relieved once you share with them. The hottest part of early relationships is not just the sex, it’s feeling so special to someone as they let you into their inner world. So, letting them in emotionally might be the biggest turn-on yet for you both.
Sometimes, as we spin out in fear of being rejected, just sharing with our partner can be the most healing thing of all.
DeGeare is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who specializes in intimacy, LGBTQIA+ relationships, mixed-culture couples, and racial identity development. The advice in this column is to point you in a direction that encourages healing and creates safety for you in this world. It is not to replace the relationship with a licensed mental health professional who knows your personal history.