A sexually transmitted virus that’s nothing to be ashamed about

Writer Ayelet Waldman leads the charge against Michele Bachmann and skittishness about the virus

Topics: Health,

A sexually transmitted virus that's nothing to be ashamed aboutAyelet Waldman

I’d like to talk to you about my cervix. And yours. And all of our daughters’ cervixes as well. Why not? Everybody else is. First, Michele Bachmann, a woman who’s consistently moronic even by Tea Party standards, took Texas Gov. Rick Perry to task for once mandating human papillomavirus vaccines. Bachmann declared that “to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection … is just flat-out wrong.” She then went on the “Today” show and referred to “what potentially could be a very dangerous drug,” explaining, “I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Fla., after the debate and tell me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter.” Why all the fuss? Because the virus, which can lead to cervical cancer, is sexually transmitted. And the vaccine is recommended for young girls before they become sexually active. Little girls! Sex! Hide your kids!

The ensuing kerfuffle — this, by the way, over a woman who went on national television and used the phrase “mental retardation” with a straight face — has made the ongoing debate over the Gardasil vaccine even more lively. On Wednesday, author Ayelet Waldman boldly jumped into the fray, tweeting: “To the conservative nutjobs: I got HPV from my husband, who got it from his 1st wife. I ended up w/ cancerous cervical lesions.”

Waldman, a former Salon.com columnist whose husband is author Michael Chabon, has never been a slouch in the sexual sharing department. But along with kudos for her candor, her disclosure also set off a firestorm of disapproving comments. Vanity Fair writer Emma Gilbey Keller groaned, “Oh God, not when I’m eating.” And the New York Observer declared her post “a new height in oversharing.” To which Waldman responded, “Shame = Cancer. Grow the fuck up.”

As the mother of two young daughters, I have a stake in the HPV vaccination debate as well. This past summer, my 11-year-old daughter received her first shot of Gardasil — though not in the way either she or I had ever imagined. Because of her nurse’s carelessness, she was given it instead of the meningitis vaccine she was supposed to receive that day.

I wouldn’t wish a medical error on any family, or the ensuing lack of confidence in a pediatrician’s office. But the incident did make me even firmer in my conviction that my daughters have a voice in their sexual and reproductive health. Unlike Bachmann, however, I’m not fretting that a vaccine will somehow compromise their status as “innocent.” And just because Bachmann is a fact-challenged, fear-mongering dope, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Rick Perry or Merck Pharmaceuticals have America’s children’s best interests at the forefronts of their hearts.

Ultimately, I believe in the value of the vaccine and am glad that my child decided of her own free will to continue with the final two doses. I want her to be her own first and best advocate. I want her to understand what the HPV virus can do to a person, how it is transmitted, and the steps a woman can take to protect herself and her partners from it. The issue isn’t guarding her virtue — and it isn’t even parental rights. It’s educating girls to make their own choices — and understanding that means having frank discussions about sex.

You Might Also Like

Health issues often go hand in hand with personal responsibility. It’s human nature to look for causes and connections, to figure out what we can do to reduce risk. But that often comes with a heaping dose of blame, the implicit notion that someone who gets a virus or a disease must have been asking for it. Did you smoke? Did you sunbathe? Surely you did something risky to bring this upon yourself. And there’s no greater field of shame and stigma than the sexual realm. It’s not enough for STDs themselves to be a sure sign of wantonness, the mere act of protecting oneself from them — via condoms or sex ed or vaccination — must indicate a proclivity toward sluttiness. And though sex is always fair game for public conversation, its  real consequences too often provoke a sudden attack of delicate sensibilities. Tell us about your orgasms, ladies, not your lesions.

So it’s laudable that in her attempt to destigmatize the virus, Waldman wasn’t afraid to broadcast her experience to the world. It’s just unfortunate that she made the same error that conservatives like Bachmann do — she made a virus into a moral issue. Why did Waldman feel compelled to announce that she’d contracted the virus from her husband, who got it from his ex-wife? The implication is that Waldman herself is certainly not a loose woman, and that you can draw your own conclusions about her husband’s former missus. No wonder she has since deleted the post, though she’s still insistent about how honorably she got the virus, saying, “I gave away someone else’s info. But to recap, I have HPV. Got it in a monogamous marriage.”

As Village Voice blogger Jen Doll points out, so what? In her Thursday column, she reminds us that “Most men and women — about 80 percent of sexually active people — are infected with HPV at some point in their lives.” And as a virus that is transmitted via skin-to-skin contact, even the most diligent of condom users are not immune to getting it. HPV happens, folks. That’s why Doll goes on to propose that Friday, Sept. 16, be “Tweet that You Have (or Had) HPV Day.”

Done and done. I have had the HPV virus. I have dealt with abnormal pap smears, precancerous cells, and endured two painful LEEP procedures. I have written about it previously in Salon, prompting, among other reader responses, a few “Yuck, that’s gross” replies. Maybe I got it from someone I loved and had a long relationship with, and maybe I got it from being a big old bed-hopping tramp. I’m not going to say, because it doesn’t matter. It certainly didn’t matter to the cells in my cervix. I’m not ashamed to be in the same company as 80 percent of the population, just as I wasn’t ashamed to tell my daughter that I’d had the virus, and that is why I believe in the vaccine. (The fact that I’ve given birth to her was her first tip-off that Mom’s not a virgin.) 

Be ashamed of ignorance. Be ashamed of stigmatizing people for going about the normal business of leading sexual lives. Be ashamed of a culture that’s obsessed with sex but squeamish about the human body. Be ashamed of assuming that giving girls options regarding their future health is somehow a dangerous idea. Be utterly mortified if you’ve ever allowed Michele Bachmann a moment of credibility. But if you’re one of the millions of people like me, who’ve lived and loved and consequently picked up a virus along the way, believe me, a little HPV is the last thing on earth you have to be embarrassed about.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>