Every month in Sex at Our Age, award-winning senior sexpert Joan Price answers your questions about everything from loss of desire to solo sex and partner issues. Nothing is out of bounds! To send your questions directly to Joan, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am 61 and my partner is 68. He was diagnosed with genital warts on his penis about 9 months into our 18-month relationship. He is devastated and doesn’t know where to turn or how to treat the warts. He’s very afraid of the diagnosis and now refers to himself as damaged goods. I know he is feeling a sense of loss and is really embarrassed.
He saw a GP who was rather brusque and pessimistic and told him that there is no cure and that he should be abstinent. As you can imagine, this was very upsetting. It was a cursory consult and he was told that the only way he could ever have “safe sex” was to completely abstain.
My boyfriend, who now feels a deep sense of shame, thinks he needs to be abstinent. I still think we can be sensual and sexual, and use finger/hand stimulation safely — can’t we? I’m trying to offer him hope, but he is stuck and paralyzed by the diagnosis.
Some cream that he ordered online has not been effective. I think he is searching for answers. How would you suggest that he proceed? The information we found on the Internet was contradictory, confusing, sometimes scary. It made us feel hopeless and uncertain. We were a very sexual and physical couple. Now there’s no penetration for fear that I might become infected. If it were up to me, I would love intercourse and oral sex, but he seems much more fearful than I am.
We are very affectionate, touch a lot, enjoy each other’s company, but he seems to have emotional and psychological barriers. I remain patient and hopeful. I don’t judge him — anyone can have HPV. I am trying gently to figure out what he needs to feel more comfortable. I care about him deeply. —Struggling with HPV
Genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection caused by the human papilloma virus, or HPV. There are more than 100 strains of HPV and often no symptoms of infection, and no test exists that covers all strains— which helps explain why HPV is so common—between ½ million and 1 million new cases occur every year.
In fact, HPV is such a common virus that it’s sometimes referred to as “the common cold of sexually transmitted infections.” HPV infections are three times as common as genital herpes, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, most sexually active Americans will have HPV at some time in their lives.
I am appalled that your partner’s doctor was so dismissive and shaming, I consulted clinical pharmacist/ nutritionist Paul Roberts, R.Ph, M.S., who said, “It seems like his GP was uneducated in the treatment of genital warts and uninformed on the basics that we would expect from any doctor. Genital warts are very easy to treat. He should ask for a referral to another practitioner: a dermatologist or urologist.”
Although there’s no cure for the HPV, some treatments remove the genital warts. Yes, they can come back, but they can be treated again. That said, your partner should discontinue the cream he bought online since it isn’t effective anyway, and get a valid medical treatment. “Anything bought over the Internet without a prescription is likely a waste of money for genital warts,” Roberts says.
It’s upsetting that your partner feels like “damaged goods,” though I understand why he does, given his physician’s false information and bad advice. I recommend that your partner abandon his GP and take this four-pronged approach:
- See a urologist or dermatologist to make sure the diagnosis is accurate. At least 10 other conditions can mimic genital warts. Experienced practitioners can diagnose genital warts by sight, but I wouldn’t take the word of the GP your boyfriend saw. If necessary, a biopsy can confirm the diagnosis.
- Explore treatments with the urologist or dermatologist. Prescription ointments podofilox or imiquimod are the first line of treatment and will clear most genital warts within three months. Other treatments are performed or applied by the doctor and may include freezing, podophyllin resin, trichloroacetic acid, surgical removal, laser therapy or light therapy.
- See a counselor or sex therapist to deal with feelings of shame and depression and to discuss how to bring sex back into your relationship. The GP did some real emotional harm, which can have lasting effects without help from counseling. Don’t skip this step. An HPV support group, live or online, can also be helpful, as well as couples therapy.
- Explore safer sex options for keeping sexual intimacy. You can have sex with condoms for intercourse and fellatio; dental dams for cunnilingus; and latex, polyurethane or nitrile gloves for manual sex. Don’t fall into the trap of seeing barrier protection as detracting from sexual pleasure – instead, eroticize barrier use, making it part of the love play.
Don’t give up on sex, because that can tear apart your relationship. If you don’t feel comfortable with the risks of intercourse, think of it as just one way of having sex. Look at how you can give each other sexual pleasure in other ways. Above all, keep communicating.
My best wishes for a satisfying outcome that includes intimacy without shame. Thank you for caring so much about your partner that you wrote to us on his behalf. —Joan
- HPV Hope: support, resources, education.
- Mayo Clinic: Genital warts
- American Academy of Dermatology: Genital warts
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Human Papillomavirus
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Joan Price is the author of the new “Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50: How to Maintain – or Regain! – a Spicy, Satisfying Sex Life”; the award-winning self-help book “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex”; and the sexy memoir, “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty.” Visit Joan’s blog, “Naked at Our Age,” and her Facebook page.