There aren't many things that you can say a quarter of the U.S. population has in common, but HPV (human papillomavirus) is apparently one of them. Approximately 79 million Americans currently have HPV. It's the most common STI in the country. In fact, the vast majority of sexually active adults will contract it eventually.
The curious thing about HPV, which is as yet incurable, is how differently it impacts men and women. Men rarely experience any health problems as a result of HPV, and—while most women with HPV don't exhibit any symptoms—more than 99% of cervical cancers are caused by certain high-risk strains of HPV. There is no HPV test for men, only for women. The CDC recommends that both boys and girls be vaccinated against the most dangerous strains of HPV.
I've been thinking a lot about the way we talk about HPV in pop culture—and the way we didn't, for almost as long as I can remember, despite its real-life prevalence—ever since Ali Wong's standup special Baby Cobra arrived on Netflix in May. It made waves not only because Wong is hilarious, but also because she was very, very pregnant when it was taped, a fact she only addresses 38 minutes into her hour-long routine.
Early in her set, Wong doesn't just come out with her own HPV diagnosis, doesn't just reinforce how societally universal HPV is, but also nails the HPV awareness gender gap (can a virus be sexist? if so, HPV, you're on notice):
Everybody has HPV, okay? Everybody has it. It’s okay. Come out already. Everybody has it. If you don’t have it yet, you go and get it. You go and get it. It’s coming. You don’t have HPV yet, you’re a fucking loser, all right? That’s what that says about you.
A lot of men don’t know that they have HPV, because it’s undetectable in men. It’s really fucked up. HPV is a ghost that lives inside men’s bodies and says “Boo!” in women’s bodies.
My doctor told me I have one of two strains of HPV. Either I have the kind that’s gonna turn into cervical cancer… or I have the kind where my body will heal itself. Very helpful, this doctor, right? So, basically, either I’m gonna die… or you’re in the presence of Wolverine, bitches. We’ll find out.
As Wong frames it, HPV isn't anything remotely resembling a cause for shame. It's an inevitable sign of a life well lived.
A February episode of Broad City struck a similarly powerful note of HPV acceptance, even celebration. Ilana (Ilana Glazer) frets about a doctor's appointment at which she'll receive the last of three required doses for her HPV vaccine. It's not that Ilana is afraid of the stigma of HPV—quite the opposite, in fact—but it's the needle that has her spooked. "Don't you already have HPV?" Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) asks her later. Ilana laughs: "Of course I have HPV. I'd almost be embarrassed not to have HPV at this point. But now, I don't have the three strains that can cause cervical cancer."
I still remember the very first time I heard HPV mentioned on television, or at least the very first time I'd heard it mentioned on TV outside of a news report. It was 2012, in the third episode of Girls' first season. When Hannah (Lena Dunham) is told by her doctor that she has HPV, Jessa (Jemima Kirke) comforts her friend by telling her that "all adventurous women do." In recent years, this message of positivity has only grown louder.
Amy Schumer, perhaps the most visible and most powerful woman in comedy today, has emerged as something of an HPV evangelist. Frank discussion of the infection has long been a staple of her comedy. In 2014, she explained in Bust that she made a point of bringing HPV up in her standup specifically because it was a source of needless embarrassment for so many women:
…I got HPV in college, and I was like, "My life is over." I was so ashamed. And then after college, my friends and I were out for drinks and they were like, "Oh my God, I had it too." We had all gotten it, but everyone had this bad moment. So when I go to a college, especially, I’ll be like, "You’re all going to get it, and don’t feel bad." I want to make people feel better.
And she has made people feel better. In a Time profile of Schumer published that same year, Jessi Klein—who'd later become the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer—recalled her reaction to hearing Schumer joke about HPV onstage when they first met: "…I thought that was the bravest thing I’d ever heard. Everyone has it, and nobody talks about it. I was like, ‘Oh my God, she dared to talk about HPV. I want to be her best friend.’”
The increased visibility of HPV doesn't just have value as a fresh, unexplored frontier of comedy. It's also a promising bellwether of the increasing prominence of authentic female voices on television and, most importantly, a profoundly normalizing influence. The stigma that persists around HPV is a direct result of our sexual double standard: The cultural norms that shame women perceived as having a high number of sex partners (and, by the way, it's worth noting that you could have one sexual partner your entire life and still potentially contract HPV from that person) and laud men for the same reason.
These women want you to know: Everyone has HPV. It doesn't matter. It's going to be okay.
Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.