Cervical health is an issue that concerns people of all genders and sexual orientations. Our ever-growing scientific understanding of sexuality and gender makes it clear that we cannot continue to call vaginal and cervical health issues exclusively “women’s health problems” as is often stated in commonly found literature about sexual health. After all, we would be excluding nonbinary, agender, transgender, intersex individuals if we did not address everyone. Asexuals, you’re not off the hook! Not only that, but people with penises and variants thereof are often in contact with their vaginal counterparts sexually and must be included in the conversation about vaginal and cervical health as well. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, more than 13,000 people are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, prompting a serious healthcare problem to consider. Since cancers and sexually-transmitted infections (STI) affect so many people annually, the U.S. Congress designated January as National Cervical Health Awareness Month to help mitigate the problem of undereducation around sexual topics.
Human papillomavirus, commonly known as HPV, is the most common (STI) in the U.S., with 14 million people becoming infected each year (CDC, 2019). For college students, knowledge about the disease is shockingly low, and many choose not to vaccinate themselves because of this (Kellogg, 2019). The STI can remain asymptomatic and not cause any problems for some people at times, but, at other times, it may express itself in the form of genital warts or even cancer (Planned Parenthood). HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, which is what most frequently happens during sexual contact. It is spread through the body’s mucous membranes and bodily fluids, so it can be transmitted by body parts that open up to the outside. This means that HPV can be transmitted orally, vaginally and anally through sexual activity. Even if it isn’t obvious that bodily fluids are involved, it is still a risk. This also means you can’t get it from toilet seats or shaking hands! Risks of the STI can lead to serious health problems and may interfere with pregnancies. Notably, HPV has been directly linked to cervical cancer (American Cancer Society, 2020).
Preventative care makes all the difference in protecting yourself and sexual partners and can be achieved with simple, effective strategies. Safe sex practices may seem like obvious and low-hanging fruit, but its importance cannot be stressed enough. To begin with, an informed consent approach to sexual activity can prevent a plethora of problems from social drama to the transmission of life-altering STIs. Before engaging in sexual activity, which includes kissing, it is important to know the status of your partner’s or partners’ STI tests. They can give you information about risks you might be engaging in. Simply asking in a direct way can get you the information you need to make autonomous choices for your body. For example, you may learn about your potential partner’s sexual network and test results for STIs such as herpes, HIV/AIDS and HPV among others.
If you are sexually active, you may want to consider additional measures to body-informed consent. Since HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, using contact barriers such as condoms is imperative. Penile and vaginal (often referred to as “female”) condoms, dental dams and other latex-based contact barriers prevent the exchange of bodily fluids and limit vulnerable bodily openings from direct skin-on-skin contact. Unlike the use of face masks, however, every party involved does not need to wear a barrier. Actually, it is not recommended to use both a penile and vaginal simultaneously because the materials create a friction that can causes the barriers to break. You will also want to cover and replace coverings of sex toys like vibrators and dildos if you will be sharing them with a partner. Never insert toys into a vagina that has been inserted anally since the type of bacteria found in and around the anus is very harmful to vaginal and cervical health. Although intimate toys are made of body-safe materials, such as silicone, they can also harbor bacteria and transmit diseases. Consistent usage of recommended contact barriers greatly reduces the risk of transmission of HPV among other STIs. Contact barriers are available at most healthcare facilities for free, including the Wellness Center on campus.
There are solutions for everyone, even if you aren’t sexually active, because cervical health problems may arise on their own. Whether it’s genetic or environmental, you could be at risk for contracting an STI and developing a cervical disease. For example, sometimes STIs lay dormant for a long period of time before becoming active, even if you haven’t been sexually active in a long time. Individuals aged 11 years and older may receive a preventative HPV vaccine, brand-named Gardasil and Cervarix. It is recommended for individuals through age 26 and may be received up to age 45 (CDC, 2020). The vaccine works to prevent future infections but does not treat previous exposure to HPV. During masturbation, keeping your hands, environment and sex toys clean is a must. Be sure to wash your toys with material-specific safe soap before and after every use, sterilize them regularly and keep them in a closed container! If you have a cervix, routine pap smears and cervical exams can help you keep tabs on your health. It is recommended that individuals aged 21 and up receive these at least once every three years, unless recommended by a personal physician to test more frequently.
Symptoms of HPV include warts around the genital area, mouth or hands, abnormal genital appearance, abnormal vaginal discharge, genital or oral lesions and blood not related to menstrual functions. The appearance of blood should be addressed immediately by a medical professional. Seek medical attention if any of these symptoms causes discomfort, embarrassment or pain. Should you find yourself with these symptoms, you may want to prepare yourself with a checklist of things to address:
Contact your healthcare provider to request an STI screening appointment.
Go to your screening! Be prepared to provide specific details about your concerns such as the date you first found the problem.
Ask your provider to walk you through the process if you are nervous. Ask questions if you have them.
Abstain from sexual activity until you know your test results to prevent the spread of the disease. Routine testing is also a fun date idea!
Let your sexual network know of any positive test results or serious concerns. Telling your partners is a crucial part of a consensual sexual relationship, as they may want to get tested or abstain themselves.
Seek support from a professional if you identify any ongoing concerns for your physical or mental health.
Remember, there is no shame in consensual sexual activity, and no one practices safe sex perfectly — only practice can make better.
There are many resources available for little to no cost to you, especially if your insurance plan includes obstetrician-gynecologist (OB-GYN) care. The Lawrence University Wellness Center, Planned Parenthood and your general practitioner are great places to start seeking support and further resources.
For concerns about sexual assault, the Student Alliance Against Sexual Harassment and Assault (SAASHA) and the Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education (SHARE) committee can help guide decisions regarding Title IX complaints and emergency care. A confidential campus advocate can be reached at 920-832-6574.