Eventually, some women are going to hear those three little life-changing words: “You have HPV.” I first found out I had HPV (the human papilloma virus, cousin of herpes, grows on a woman’s cervix and gives her cervical cancer which is still one of the leading causes of cancer-related death in women worldwide) just over two and a half years ago. Aside from it giving me the ability to make hilarious jokes about how I’m going to die of cancer before I’m 30, it was absolutely terrifying (hence the jokes), the complete opposite of anything Girls would have you believe.
For one, after HPV is detected on your pap test, they make you have a colposcopy (where the doctor paints your cervix with a chemical to see the irregular cell growth with his eyes), then when he sees it, he inevitably says “YAY! Time for a biopsy!” which means he’s about to cut bits of your cervix out with giant scissors while you lay there completely lucid, awake and unanesthetised. It hurts exactly as much as you think it does. Then you have to wait a grueling couple of days to find out just how advanced your irregular cell growth is, in other words, how imminent cancer is.
The first time I went through this process, I was told everything was fine and to go away and let it clear up on its own, which HPV is prone to do, and which it did. Two and a half years later, I haven’t been so lucky.
A week after my super fun awesome biopsy (my second in two years, they should have a loyalty rewards card for this shit), I received a call from my doctor.
“It’s not great,” he said, “you’ll need to come in as soon as possible so we can burn your cervix with lasers.” I’m paraphrasing, but you catch my drift.
I immediately called a friend who I knew had undergone the procedure in the past. She talked me through it, what to expect and how it would feel, before she dropped the bomb.
“You can’t wear tampons, and you definitely can’t have sex for about six weeks, because the wound has to heal properly.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. For the briefest moment, the prospect of going sexless was far more daunting than a doctor trying to remove a growth that was potentially morphing into a cancer from my body.
“Can’t you just, you know, play with the outside?” I questioned.
My friend laughed, “Funny you should ask,” she responded, “I had a friend who underwent the procedure, and after a couple of weeks she was gagging for it so she used her vibrator on the outside only but it still shook the scab inside her loose and she had to go back to the hospital to have it looked at and dried again.”
I hung up the phone feeling quite bleak, imaging my soon-to-be sexless life and broken vagina. Who would want me now? I thought, completely irrationally.
And although I don’t judge my worth through sex, there was something, in that moment, completely disenfranchising about not being able to have sex or masturbate, and strangely enough, it brought me face to face with my mortality. Moreover, it made me all the more terrified of cervical cancer, or of breast cancer – of the types of diseases that can strip us of our womanhood (or manhood, if you’re a dude).
I know that “being a woman” isn’t contingent on sexual organs; I know how much more it entails, but at the same time, there’s something very basic and very primal in the femininity our sex bestows on us. My vagina, suddenly, became definitive.
For the first time in my life, I sort of understood how asshole religious people and Republicans put their two and twos together about the female body. I haven’t had sex with that many guys, but enough to make me “promiscuous.” In my most self-pitying moments, the thought did cross my mind that maybe I was being punished for all my sexual misadventures. There is NO part of me that truly believes that, but lying awake at 3AM, I felt very alone and scared out of my brain.
I was seeing a dude at the time, and I had to tell him about what was happening, because I figured I couldn’t disguise not being able to have sex for a month with any other excuse. He didn’t contact me again (although when I eventually called him out, he said it was for another reason), but with my imagination running wild it made me feel utterly rejected, and I think I even described myself at one point as a “spent whore”. Yes, I have a penchant for melodrama.
So it was that the doctor burned my cervix, and I bled for a week and horrible things fell out of me that looked like coffee grounds covered in blood. For the first week at least, sex was not something that I vaguely cared about or thought about once. But as the bleeding and cramps lessened and eventually stopped, sex crept back into my consciousness.
Oh God I wanted it. I just wanted to fuck. Or masturbate. Or something. But there was nothing I could do, and that just made it worse.
But by the third week, some weird Zen-like tranquility came over me. The horniness went away. I relished not having to share my bed with a dude. At the end of nights out, I liked having the excuse: “I have a broken vagina so I have to go home alone.”
My vagina is functioning again (at a decreased capacity, but functioning nonetheless), and you better believe I didn’t waste a second getting stuff up inside it. Because even though I realise I don’t “need” sex, I also remember that it’s something that I really love. And I want to do it, as much as possible.
More Sex stuff from Kat: