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

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 16, 2011 3:17PM (EDT)

Ayelet Waldman
Ayelet 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.

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.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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