The HPV Vaccination: One More Way That Safe Sex Has Become Women’s Work

Today, Reuters reported that, according to the Center for Disease Control, too few girls and young women are receiving the Gardasil vaccination, which protects against the human papillomavirus (HPV), and that there are many steps to be taken to ensure that more females are protected from the virus, which can lead to cervical cancer and other diseases. What neither Reuters, nor the CDC, nor almost any other news organization ever mentions is that boys can be vaccinated, too.

It irritates me to no end that the HPV vaccination is one more area of sexual health that is foisted upon women. And while it is true that women tend to see more health complications from HPV (which has over 100 strains, many of which are harmless, but many of which also can comprise immunity and cause cancer), women wouldn’t be getting the virus if men weren’t also carrying it and transmitting it. There simply aren’t that many lesbians in the world.

HPV, by the way, isn’t just sexually transmitted. It’s not just a disease for loose ladies, and the shot doesn’t imply that a girl intends to have multiple partners–HPV can be passed from skin-to-skin contact, including kissing. Which means even those who abstain from sex or always use protection are still at risk.

Additionally, multiple studies in the past few years have made it clear that HPV can actually be pretty detrimental to men–it’s one of the leading causes of throat cancer–if they are infected and don’t receive treatment. Which many don’t, because for most carriers, HPV has few or no symptoms at all.

But even if men never, ever got sick from HPV, and simply carried it and transmitted it to their partners, the idea that only women need to be vaccinated is simply untrue, because men still move the disease around. And yet, doctors, Merck (the drug manufacturer who, by the way, stands to make more money if they market the drug to boys, too), and the CDC all continue to press the vaccination on girls, specifically. Because they’re the ones who get sick, so they’re the ones who need to protect themselves. Many parents don’t even realize that vaccinating their sons is a choice.

Sex columnist Dan Savage recently commented on this matter in a podcast, noting that, regardless of whether or not men are at risk of complications due to HPV, vaccinating young men against the shot is clearly a way to reduce the prevalence of the disease. He also noted that his own teenage son has been vaccinated for that reason.

Of course, vaccinations are controversial–who can forget Michele Bachmann‘s totally baseless claim that some women once told her that her daughter may have become mentally retarded from a vaccination–but there have yet to be any complications that can be explicitly traced to the Gardasil shot, including any sort of mental ailments. The vaccinations which were first targeted for potentially causing autism are for entirely different diseases, contain different drugs, and were also proven not to hinder the mental capacity of children. Additionally, Gardasil is given much later in life–between the age of 11 and 15, usually–which makes them much less likely to leave lasting developmental damage.

Placing the sole responsibility of vaccination of young women is absurd, regardless of how you feel about the vaccine. In fact, if you’re on the fence about potential health risks which may come with Gardasil, the assumption that only women should have to take those risks to protest themselves seems even more obtuse. Men may or may not experience the same cancer rates as women as a result of HPV, but as long as men want to kiss or sleep with women, they should be expected to get vaccinated, too.

Image: Goodluz / Shutterstock

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    • Hannah

      Fair enough, but it’s irresponsible to rely on someone else– like your partner, rather than getting the shot yourself– to protect you from HPV.

    • Bonnie

      As a Nobel Prize endorsed author, speaker, as well as advocate with my own HPV website/blog/forum, I wrote about this issue a month ago when the CDC Update came out at the end of August.

      HIV, discovered in the same year as HPV16, responsble for 50% of cervical cancers, is very well known by most due in large part to the political will behind educating the public. Not so with HPV.

      The CDC and associated agencies have done a pathetic job with the millions they have been allocated. Most women still learn about HPV at the time of diagnosis and didn’t know a vaccine even existed.

      This is also again in large part the result of Merck having dropped the ball since its initial Gardasil commercials. Their commercial bombarded most channels yet when the FDA expanded approval for protection not only against cervical cancer but vaginal vulvar and anal cancers there was no new wave of TV campaigns to trumpet the value of this vaccine, nor that young boys and men had been approved almost two years ago now.

    • Angie

      Actually they have now approved it for boys also. My 16 year old son has already received it. We have talked about it being his duty to protect anyone he is ever with as well as himself.

      • Hanna Brooks Olsen

        Right, it’s approved for boys. But parents of young men aren’t being told that it’s important for them to get it, too.

    • Abigail

      Or, you could say, that this is just one more way for women and girls to become aware and empowered and take over their sex life to protect themselves. Why exactly are you making the availability of protection against disease a horrible thing?

    • Jill Mary Duggan

      Acquiring HPV is a serious thing just like acquiring HIV and other STD’s. Thanks for educating as a reader!