As told to Katy Ward
There was a girl in my GCSE business studies class I owe an apology. Her name was Holly and there were persistent rumours she had chlamydia. I remember glowering at her as we learned about company branding. I could tell she wanted to cry, but nevertheless I felt superior.
Twenty-five years later, I wonder if Holly would be as cruel to me if she knew my sexual health history.
At 17, I was diagnosed with recurrent respiratory papilloma (RRP) – non-cancerous wart-like growths on my vocal cords, which are typically caused by skin-to-skin genital contact such as sex or sharing vibrators.
The condition can lead to growths in the throat that can obstruct the airways, cause oral cancer, difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing. If left untreated, there is a small chance a sufferer could suffocate.
My condition is caused by the human papillomavirus, which can lead to genital warts and potentially cervical cancer – depending on the strain you have and, according to the NHS, there are more than 100 strains.
The first sign of my condition was a lumpy growth on my vulva
Being the self-righteous prude who mocked 14-year-old Holly, I was still a virgin at 17 and, to my slight embarrassment, had never even kissed another person… man or a woman.
The first sign of my condition was a lumpy growth on my vulva. Or is it vagina? In a moment that makes me cringe, I showed it to mother to allay my health worries. She said it was a “secretion gland” and not to worry. She was wrong.
Not long after, I spotted a whitish growth on the dangly thing at the back of my throat, which I’ve since learned is called the uvula. According to commentators from the world of sexual health, these growths resemble cauliflowers. This sounds like an astoundingly poetic analogy. In reality, my wart reminds me of a stubborn mouth ulcer.
One explanation for my condition is that my mother was suffering from genital warts, which were transmitted during my birth
I’d never heard of RRP when I received the diagnosis from a stern-looking Irish doctor. As a child of the eighties, the sex education I received always felt pretty perfunctory. Mrs Newton, if you don’t know whether a woman can go swimming when she has her period, you have no right to teach young people about sex.
I explained to the doctor that I was a virgin and couldn’t possibly have an STI. The stern-looking Irish doctor didn’t seem to believe me. My major memory of these visits is invasive vaginal examinations. I think the device the nurse used to check my cervix was called a speculum. It reminded me of a metallic duck and I couldn’t stop thinking of my childhood days watching Count Duckula. The experience was so painful, I worried I was going to poo on the examining table.
One explanation for my condition is that my mother was suffering from genital warts, which were transmitted during my birth. I can’t bring myself to ask my mum if she has an STI.
Did she catch it from my dad? A previous boyfriend? I’ve heard her talking about going to the cinema with “lads” as a teenager. I don’t want this information about my parents’ sex life and she doesn’t know about my potentially life-limiting condition.
What frightened me most about my diagnosis was the news there isn’t a cure and the most effective treatment is a surgical procedure. In the most extreme cases, these procedures are necessary every couple of months and can lead to vocal cord scarring, which makes speech difficult.
I resolved to never go back to the specialist. I was far too scared to endure such frequent operations. Decades on, I can still see warts on my uvula but choose to ignore them. Whenever it stresses me out, I drink a box of wine. I haven’t visited the dentist since I was a teenager. Now my teeth are rotting in my gums. I’ve met 80-year-olds with better smiles.
I worried potential boyfriends would think I was a slag if I told them I had an STI
Perhaps, I suffer with a mild version of the condition. I lack the medical evidence to tell me otherwise. I live a relatively normal life, though I often wake in the middle of the night unable to breathe. I’m not sure whether this is due to growths or decades of anxiety.
When I was at university, it felt like the perfect window to lose my virginity and I was desperate for sex. But I worried potential boyfriends would think I was a slag if I told them I had an STI or a nut case if I told them I was a virgin and had an STI.
This monastic attitude continued during my 20s and 30s. A few friends have asked if I’m asexual. I maintain a strategic silence and they’re too polite to probe any further.
I would never want anyone else with an STI to feel shame but can’t bring myself to be honest with the men I date
I watch pornography and masturbate at least once a day. Most people do these things during a lull in their sex lives. I’ll never be close enough to another person to have a sex life because I don’t want to risk infecting them.
At 39, I logically know I’m not dirty and would never want anyone else with an STI to feel shame but can’t bring myself to be honest with the men I date. I hope other people in my position have a healthier attitude to their condition and seek regular medical treatment.
I am still obsessed with sex. It would have less mystery for me if I’d actually done it but feels like a wonderful enigma. I’m like one of those archaeologists who spend their lives digging through Egyptian tombs in search of a lost pharaoh — only super horny.
I’m too scared to visit the doctor
The other day, I did an internet sex search for sex chats geared towards heterosexual women. Nothing. So I went to a lesbian chat site. I was charged nearly £20 in two minutes. I knew I’d been ripped off, but what was I gonna do? Call Watchdog?
One of my biggest worries is that the HPV virus is a leading cause of genital warts, or so Google informs me. A major treatment for this condition is to freeze the warts off. What a giant metaphor. I’d need my vagina frozen. Sexually and emotionally, I’m frozen too.
I’ve recently developed a wart on the index finger of my right hand. The way the seeds have converged inside the wart reminds me of the WhatsApp insignia. I wonder if the HPV is the cause, but I’m too scared to visit the doctor.
From all my research, it seems it’s remarkably rare to be in my position
The last thing I want is to scare anybody. From all my research, it seems it’s remarkably rare to be in my position. I’m also happy teenage girls are offered a vaccine against HPV virus in school. This means my friends’ children shouldn’t (I hope) experience the same things I did.
A part of me feels I should finish off by apologising to the Holly I bullied when I was 14, but then I worry this would seem trite and insincere.
If it weren’t for my subsequent health issues, I’d have probably long forgotten my bad behaviour. Maybe that’s the real shame and not my STI.
The expert view
The British Association for Sexual Health and HIV explains how this can happen.
How can a virgin have what is perceived as an STI?
Many STIs can be caught without penetrative (vaginal or anal) sex. Most can be passed through oral sex and some through just genital contact.
HPV is a viral skin infection and therefore can be passed through skin-to-skin contact.
HPV virus can, very rarely, cause RRP in children having been passed from mother to child during labour.
Should people be worried about contracting RRP in this manner?
RRP is an extremely uncommon complication of a very common viral skin infection. The majority of people will catch one or more strains of HPV in their lifetime which, in the vast majority of people, will not cause any problems at all
What is the prognosis for those with RRP? Is there a link to cervical cancer?
The majority of RRP is caused by HPV types 6 and 11, the benign types also associated with genital warts. These are not associated with cervical cancer.
STIs are common and not only passed through unprotected vaginal or anal sex so it’s a good idea to get tested regularly by visiting your local sexual health clinic.