Are Lesbians at Risk for HPV?

Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Cervical Cancer, and Lesbian Women

Women kissing in public
Can lesbian women become infected with human papillomavirus (HPV)?. Getty Image News

Can lesbian women contract or transmit human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus which can lead to cervical cancer and genital warts? What do you need to know if your partner has been diagnosed with HPV or has had an abnormal Pap smear?

Lesbian Women and Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

The human papillomavirus (HPV) can be transmitted sexually between two women just as it can be transmitted between two men or between a man and a woman.

In order to spread from one person to another, penile penetration is not required. Skin-to-skin contact with an infected person is all that is required.

How is the HPV Virus Transmitted Between Lesbian Partners?

As noted, penile penetration is not required in order to transmit the HPV virus. The virus can be transmitted by:

  • Genital to genital contact (There are several sexually transmitted diseases which only require skin to skin contact.)
  • By touching the genitals of a partner and then your own (genital to hand to genital transmission)
  • By sharing sex toys without first disinfecting them (transfer of a sexually transmitted infection by way of an object is referred to as fomite transmission.)

How Lesbian Women Can Reduce the Risk of HPV

There are several ways lesbians can reduce their risk of transmitting HPV:

  • Using condoms on sex toys if you plan on sharing them
  • Using gloves (a finger cot) when touching genitals

There is no 100 percent guarantee that you will be able to prevent HPV, even as a heterosexual couple. Abstinence from all sexual activities is the only real method of prevention, although very unrealistic for most adults.

How to Find Out if You Have HPV - HPV Testing

Most women with HPV find out they are infected through a routine Pap smear and HPV test. A Pap smear may detects cervical change caused by HPV. These cervical changes, depending on the strain and if left untreated, can eventually lead to cervical cancer. This is why a Pap smear is essential for all women.

It is important to note that all types of HPV will not lead to cervical cancer. Most cases of HPV resolve on their own without medical treatment. But it is important to monitor cervical changes to see if they require treatment.

Unfortunately, there is a common misconception in the lesbian community that lesbians do not need Pap smears. This is entirely false. All women need to have regular Pap smears, regardless of sexual orientation. Current American Cancer Society screening guidelines suggest women should begin having their first Pap smears about three years after beginning sexual activity, or by age 21, whichever comes first.

The HPV test is a direct means of detecting HPV.

One way of following women aged 30 and over is to perform a Pap and an HPV test every three years. The HPV test is also used in women who have had abnormal Pap smears. The HPV test can determine whether or not a woman is infected with the virus and what type of HPV is present. It can also be used to identify women with a high risk who may need to be followed more closely.

Diseases Caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

There are over 100 different strains of the HPV virus, of which around 30 are transmitted sexually. It's thought that nearly every sexually active women—whether lesbian or straight—will develop at least one of these over time.

Not all strains of HPV cause disease. Those which do can be broken down into:

  • Cervical cancer causing strains of HPV - HPV 16 and HPV 18 are associated with at least 70 percent of cervical cancers. HPV 16 is the most common strain associated with head and neck cancers. Another 20 percent of cervical cancers are linked with HPV 31, 33, 34, 45, 52. and 58.
  • Genital wart causing strains of HPV - Roughly 90 percent of genital warts are caused by the combination of HPV 6 an HPV 11.

Immunization Against HPV

For those between the ages of nine and 26, immunizations are available to prevent some of these HPV associated diseases. Vaccines currently available include:

  • Gardisil (approved in 2006) which protects against HPV 6, 11, 16 and 18
  • Cervarix (approved in 2009) which protects against HPV 16 and 18
  • Gardisil 9 (approved 2014) which protects against HPV 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58

The particular vaccine you choose may depend upon your insurance coverage or your own preferences.

Bottom Line on HPV and Lesbian Women

Lesbian women are at risk for HPV just as women who are not lesbian, but there are many ways to decrease your risk. Thankfully, testing is available, and if you are monitored closely, even the changes which may result in cervical cancer are very treatable should they occur.

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is HPV? Updated 12/20/16. https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/parents/whatishpv.html

Potter, J., Peitzmeier, S., Bernstein, I. et al. Cervical Cancer Screening for Patients on the Female-to-Male Spectrum: a Narrative Review and Guide for Clinicians. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 2015. 30(12):1857-64.

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