What Is HPV and Can It Affect Me As a WSW?

Human Papillomavirus and the WSW Population

Genital Human papillomavirus or HPV, is a virus that is responsible for most cervical cancers and genital warts.It is also the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD), according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The CDC also states that HPV can be responsible for throat cancers and cancer of the genitals and anus.

Genital warts often are visible, but the more serious cervical cancer caused by HPV shows no symptoms most of the time unless it's detected early with a PAP smear.

The CDC states:

"HPV is passed on through genital contact, most often during vaginal and anal sex. HPV may also be passed on during oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. HPV can be passed on between straight and same-sex partners—even when the infected partner has no signs or symptoms."

In the past, some health care providers and WSW patients themselves weren't aware that WSW women need cervical cancer screening (PAP smears) on a regular basis, as do all women. Unfortunately, some providers are still unsure of the recommended screening for the WSW population.

First of all, most WSW have at some point in their lives had sex with a man, even if they are not currently sexually active with men. However, cervical neoplasia has been identified in women who have reported never having male sexual partners (Marrazzo, 2001).

Women who have sex with women can protect themselves by using barrier methods when engaging in sexual activity. Mravcak suggests: avoiding any visible genital lesions, covering sex toys that penetrate more than one person's vagina or anus with a new condom for each person, using a barrier during oral sex, and using latex or vinyl gloves and lubricant for any manual sex that might cause bleeding. (Mravcak, 2006) cited by Flemmer, 2012.

The CDC explains that the only way to fully prevent HPV infection is to abstain from sexual activity. Getting immunized with the HPV vaccine does help protect cervical cancer from occurring, but does not completely eliminate the risk.  The vaccine is most effective when administered around age 11-12. However, the vaccine is approved for ages 9-26 years. (CDC, 2012).


  • HPV is transmitted through contact, even with oral sex or genital-to-genital contact.
  • WSW, even women who have no reported sexual activity with men,  can get cervical neoplasia (abnormal cells).
  • Limiting sexual partners, getting vaccinated, asking about your partner's STD status and/or using barrier methods all reduce the risk for contracting HPV but do not eliminate it.
  • The only sure way to never get HPV is to abstain from sexual activity
  • WSW need regular well-woman exams and need Papanicolaou (PAP) tests on a regular basis, as do heterosexual women.

For more information on HPV, check out the CDC website here.

Another excellent source of other STD's between the WSW population is at Dr. Marrazzo's site, LesbianStd.com.

 Center for Disease Control. (2012). Sexually transmitted dieases: Genital HPV infection: fact sheet. Accessed online through http://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm.

Marrazzo JM, Koutsky LA, Kiviat NB, Kuypers JM, Stine K. (2001). Papanicolaou test screening and prevalence of genital human papillomavirus among women who have sex with women. American Journal of Public Health 91(6): 947-952.

Mravcak, S. (2006). Primary care for lesbians and bisexual women. American Family Physician, 74(2): 279-286

Flemmer N, Doutrich D, Dekker L, Rondeau, D. (2012). Creating a safe and caring health care context for women who have sex with women. Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 8(6): 464-481.