How can I protect my partner from HPV?

Lucilabolof
asks:
I'm a 15-y/o girl who has recently fell in love with a 15-y/o girl that I met in December. We've made it clear that we have romantic and sexual interests about each other, even though we think it's still too soon. She knows that I've been sexually active with multiple partners for a couple years, and she's very enthusiastic about experiencing new feelings and desires (I'm the first female she's ever been interested in.) We both agree that we're OK at the moment, but... I have HPV. She doesn't know because we haven't even had that much physical contact yet and we both agree that we want to wait for a while. I don't want her to be scared about it if we sometime decide we're going to have sex. I have found no actual studies about how common is lesbian HPV transmission, so there is no way for me to talk her about the possibilities of getting the STI. And even if there were reliable charts and stuff about this, I want her to be the safest she can be with me. Like, 100% safe of whatever could happen to her. I'm THAT in love. I know and use the most common methods of safe lesbian sex, like using different condoms for toys, using gloves for intercourse, and female condoms for oral sex. But, STILL... She's very excited about this whole I'm-gonna-lose-my-virginity-with-you thing, and I don't want to dissappoint her. There is no way to make sure that, if we scissor, she won't get infected. And she has told me that she'd like to scissor. I mean, if she agreed to have sex with me even with the STI, I wouldn't want to. 'Cause I really want to take care of her. I'd feel extremely guilty if she got ill because of me. I'd like to protect her from all bad things even though that's impossible. (I know I'm very cheesy and protective, she's OK with it too.) What should I do? To have sex, or not to have sex?
Amanda S replies:

First of all, a bit of information about HPV. In general HPV is quite common and quite contagious. It's slightly less contagious in vulva-to-vulva contact when compared with penis-vulva contact or penis-anal contact, but it is still contagious nonetheless, and can be contagious even without direct genital contact, for example when warts occur around but not directly on genitals, or when someone comes in contact with the virus by touching hands or toys that have been in contact with genitals. Most people will acquire HPV at some point during their lifetime, but many will never even know since most people who are exposed to the virus fight it off and clear it without showing symptoms. However, many people who are infected with HPV don't show any symptoms either, and may not find out they have HPV until they receive abnormal pap smear results during a pelvic exam. While HPV can clear up on its own, some forms of HPV are known to cause cervical cancer, even when someone has been asymptomatic for years. One way your partner can protect herself from HPV--including cervical cancer and warts--is to get the Gardasil vaccine series (also known as Silgard), which prevents infection from many of the most common types of HPV. Yep, there's a vaccine that prevents cancer: it's seriously worth a few needle-pokes.

I'm glad to see that you are taking this decision seriously, and I'm also glad to hear that you know about and practice safer sex already. However, keep in mind that your partner should be part of this decision as well, with full informed consent. Ideally, both of you should have a full STI panel before you become sexually active together, so both of you know what risks you may be taking and decide how you will protect yourselves. I suggest having a conversation about STI risks and testing with your partner sooner rather than later, because having to make important decisions about sexual health in the heat of the moment makes it more likely that you won't be comfortable with that decision later on. (As a side note, be sure that your impulse to be protective of your partner does not mean that you are making decisions for rather than with with her. In relationships, sometimes one partner--often the more sexually experienced one--takes on a "protector" role, but this can become unhealthy when this person becomes controlling, patronizing, or downplays the other partner's ability to make decisions. Healthy sexual relationships develop when both people feel empowered to communicate their needs and have the power to make fully informed decisions.)

Once you both get tested, you can talk about all of your potential risks and how/if/when you may want to become sexually active together. You and your partner might decide that scissoring poses more risk than you're comfortable with, but perhaps you want to try something else that still allows you to experience intimacy in a physical and sexual way, that carries a level of risk that you're more comfortable with and/or allows you to reliably use barriers--like oral sex with a dental dam. Here's Scarleteen's risk assessment tool to get you started with that.

You pose your question as "to have sex or not to have sex?" But perhaps a better way to approach the situation is to ask "which kinds of sex will be safest and most pleasurable for me and for my partner?" Scissoring is what many people imagine when they think of sex between two people with vulvas, and it's popular in porn (mostly produced for male viewers), likely because this kind of sex seems the most comparable to what many view as the "norm": penis-in-vagina intercourse. But if it makes you feel any better, there is a whole segment of the lesbian/vulva-loving population that thinks that scissoring is really not all it's cracked up to be; two people with vulvas have plenty of options, sexually, other than scissoring. It takes open communication and exploration of the ways your bodies work together in order to determine what you like with a certain partner. You might find that Scarleteen's Sexual Inventory Stocklist is a good place to start to establish this kind of communication, or to build on it, and this piece may come in handy too: Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner.

One other thing I want to address in your question is that sticky subject of "virginity." I put it in quotes, because to be honest, that's where it belongs. It is a very loaded term socially, but it has no universal definition since it's not an actual thing, but rather an idea. It's typically defined in terms of penetrative, penis-in-vagina intercourse and whether or not a person has had it, and has been used historically to control women's sexuality and determine their worth as potential wives (which is kind of creepy and not all that romantic). On top of that, since virginity is typically defined in heterosexual terms, the concept of virginity represents one of the many ways that queer people are invalidated and their experiences are seen as deviant--or are not seen at all. If you're interested in reading more, here's a Scarleteen article on the topic of virginity.

Certainly, the first time someone chooses to be sexual with a partner is an important event, with important implications for their life. But how that person decides to frame the event is pretty much up to them: they may think of it as a loss of "virginity," or as a "sexual debut," or as something else that fits within a personal narrative that makes sense to them. I hope your partner doesn't feel like her first sexual experience needs to be based whatsoever on what society says sex, virginity--or the "loss" thereof--should look like. In other words, scissoring is not a more legitimate way of having sex or losing your "virginity" than any other way. Our bodies are pretty versatile when it comes to giving and receiving pleasure, and the possibilities are pretty much endless once you are able to let go of those pesky expectations.