Epidemiologic and laboratory data suggest that cervical cancer typically arises from a series of causal steps. Each step can be studied separately in the hope of better etiologic understanding and improved cancer prevention. The earliest identified etiologic step is infection of young women with specific types of venereally transmissible human papillomaviruses (HPVs). Cervical HPV infections often lead to low grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (mildly abnormal Pap smears). Human papillomavirus infections and their associated lesions are extremely common among young, sexually active women. The infections typically resolve spontaneously even at the molecular level within months to a few years. Uncommonly, HPV infections and/or low grade lesions persist and progress to high grade lesions. The risk factors for progression are mainly unknown but include HPV type and intensity, cell-mediated immunity, and reproductive factors. Nutritional factors or co-infection with other pathogens may also be involved at this apparently critical etiologic step between common low grade and uncommon high grade intraepithelial lesions. Except for advancing age, no epidemiologic risk factors have been found for the next step between high grade intraepithelial lesions and invasive cancer. At the molecular level, invasion is associated with integration of viral DNA. Based on worldwide research, the steps in cervical carcinogenesis appear to be fundamentally the same everywhere, with a central role for HPV infection. The importance of etiologic cofactors like smoking, however, may vary by region.