Like local zoning policy, a death in the family, or what actually lurks within Taco Bell tacos, few people feel comfortable talking publicly about STDs. There’sno better environment for breeding misinformation than the dense cocoon of embarrassment we’ve woven around sex. The result is that most men I’ve spoken with are familiar with just one statistic that pervades the conversation around HPV: An estimated 50 to 80 percent of American adults will contract it. The universality of the threat engenders a laissez-faire attitude: Fuck it. I probably already have HPV, as do all my peers. Why worry?
The stats above are as accurate as we have. But the real story of HPV is more complicated. There are more than 130 strains of HPV, and the vast majority of them do no harm: No cancer, no warts, nothing. Most immune systems take care of the few nastiest strains just as they would any other virus. Then again, some don’t.
“[Nearly] everyone is going to be HPV positive in their lifetime, but we are only worried about the people who have an immune system who cannot clear the infection,” says Brian Hill, president of the Oral Cancer Foundation and a survivor of HPV-related oral cancer, which was located at the base of his tongue in 1997, before the virus was recognized as a cause. “Of the 99 percent of people that engage in a sexual activity that transfers the virus, orally or genitally, only 1 percent will have it cascade into a cellular event. It’s the luck of the draw in having a gene pool that does not recognize HPV 16”—the dominant cancer-causing strain—“as a threat.”