HBO's 'Girls' Adds to Our Mass Confusion About HPV

ByRuth Shannon

In only five episodes, HBO’s Girls has received both praise and censure in droves. For each person who calls the show a refreshing look at urban life from a young female perspective, there’s someone else calling out the show for being too white, or for starring too many daughters of famous people. Yesterday, a piece in the New York Times "Well" blog offered a more specific criticism: Girls’s misstatements regarding HPV (Human Papilloma Virus).  

In the show’s third episode, writer-director-producer-star Lena Dunham’s character Hannah tests positive for HPV and embarks upon a quest to figure out which of her sex partners gave it to her.  It is also revealed, in passing, that Hannah’s close friend Jessa has “several strains” of the virus; the episode’s title is taken from Jessa’s assertion that “all adventurous women do.”

Reading this "Well" post, I’m kind of embarrassed that I didn’t pick up on a lot of the misinformation in this episode myself. I feel that I have received above-average sex education from school, my wonderfully open and honest family, and my own research. In college I was part of a very interesting student group dedicated to promoting understanding of sexual health and other campus-relevant health issues. So the fact that I didn’t know, for instance, that HPV tests are not recommended for or routinely performed on women under 30 unless warranted by an abnormal Pap test, or that there is no existing treatment for HPV infection, speaks to the "Well" piece’s admission that “HPV is a confusing and complicated subject.”

Here’s what I did notice about the Girls episode in question: Hannah’s (and her friends’) reaction to her test result seemed totally overblown. It was the reaction of someone very ignorant about HPV and sexual health in general. Granted, it is always a shock to get any kind of bad news about your health, and as I’ve stated in previous posts about Girls on my blog, I appreciate the show’s dedication to these characters’ reality and not a politically correct fantasy. However, it seemed unrealistic to me that Hannah would have reached the age of 24 without understanding how common HPV is, especially considering how openly she and her friends discuss sex. It seems to me that by her mid-twenties she would be able, as I am, to recall off the top of her head at least a handful of girlfriends who have had the virus at some point. After all, nearly half of women Hannah’s and my age have HPV, and obviously this does not translate to half of women developing cervical cancer, or even pre-cancerous cells. I feel as if intelligent liberal-arts alumnae, like Hannah and her friends, would understand that HPV isn’t such a big deal. 

However, even the most comprehensive knowledge of a subject may not be enough to prevent a freak-out when it’s actually happening to you. Maybe Hannah is just the kind of girl who freaks out about things. So, even if it is logical that the characters on the show might have such sensationalist reactions to Hannah’s HPV, I do feel that the show itself could have been more responsible in its portrayal of the virus. 

Girls could have utilized some kind of voice of authority — Hannah’s doctor, or even a shot of Hannah browsing Wikipedia — to provide a brief rundown of the facts and suggest a distance between the characters’ reactions and the medical truth. Again, I don’t believe that TV needs to eschew reality in favor of social responsibility, but as my mom, a longtime soap opera writer, said in an email, there is a certain obligation “to get health related stuff right, to the extent possible.”  (She specifies that this is not the case when the health stuff in question involves a completely fictional disease that does not exist outside of soap operas.) A disease as “confusing and complicated” as HPV didn’t need Girls to muddy the waters any more.

The "Well" piece gives a good rundown of the facts of HPV as well as some nice general safe sex advice. The former Bard College Peer Health Educator in me feels compelled to add a few more tips:

1.  Get vaccinated against HPV if you haven’t already.  If you — male or female! — are between the ages of 11 and 13, vaccination is at its most effective, but it is still recommended for men and women up to age 26. Vaccination will not guarantee that you won’t ever get HPV, but it will prevent you from contracting the strains that are most likely to cause dangerous complications.

2.  Trust your partner.  Feel empowered to ask potential sex partners about their STI status.  Decide whether or not you trust him/her to be honest with you.  Proceed accordingly.

3.  Don’t freak out!  Many, many people have, have had, or will have HPV or another STI at some point. The vast majority of these people will lead long, healthy, totally normal lives. Be careful, of course, but don’t let it take over your life.  If you contract something, you’ll deal with it.  There are worse things in the world.

Stay safe, friends!  And in case you were watching HBO comedies as a way of obtaining accurate sexual health information, well, stop doing that.