Can We Have the HPV Vaccine Without the Sexism and the Homophobia?

Ms. Magazine

October 27, 2011 by ·

I respect that some of you are anti-vaccines–or just anti-Gardasil—but I hope that some Ms. readers will join me in cheering what I consider a better-late-than-never decision by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. It has officially recommended that boys and men ages 13-to-21 be vaccinated against the sexually transmitted disease HPV (human papillomavirus) to protect from anal and throat cancers.

There are many reasons this makes good sense. As I wrote in the Winter 2010 issue of Ms., there’s overwhelming evidence that HPV can lead to deadly oral, anal and penile cancers–all of which affect men and all of which are collectively responsible for twice as many deaths in the U.S. each year as cervical cancer. However, vaccines are a touchy topic, and I want to be clear that I’m not advocating in favor of or against anyone’s decision to get an HPV vaccination. I do strongly advocate for boys and girls, men and women, to have equal access to Gardasil and any other FDA-approved vaccine. Private insurers are required to cover HPV vaccines for girls and young women with no co-pay under the 2010 health reform legislation, and with this decision, that coverage requirement will extend to boys and young men, effective one year after the date of the recommendation. And, whether or not you or your loved ones get vaccinated against HPV, we will all benefit from more vaccinations, considering the extent of this sexually transmitted epidemic/pandemic, which affects as many as 75 percent of adult Americans and can be spread by skin-to-skin genital or oral contact (yes, that includes “French kissing”).

However, the media coverage of the recommendation includes a line of reasoning that I, as a sexual health educator and researcher, find offensive, ignorant, and inaccurate. The New York Times wrote: “Many of the cancers in men result from homosexual sex.” Really? What counts as “homosexual sex”? Most public health experts and HIV/AIDS researchers view “homosexuality” primarily as a sexual orientation, sometimes as a social or political identity, but not as a type of intercourse. Anyone who studies U.S. sexual norms knows that oral sex and anal sex–the behaviors cited as increasing risks of HPV-related oral and anal cancers–are not restricted to men who have sex with men. In fact, the NYT article itself asserts, “A growing body of evidence suggests that HPV also causes throat cancers in men and women as a result of oral sex” –so you don’t have to identify as a “homosexual” man to be at risk; you don’t even have to be a man.

Nevertheless, the New York Times goes on to muse that “vaccinating homosexual boys would be far more cost effective than vaccinating all boys, since the burden of disease is far higher in homosexuals.” Thankfully, the author also thought to check this idea with a member of the CDC committee, who seemed to grasp the ethical and practical challenges of making a recommendation based on a boy’s or man’s “homosexuality.” Kristen R. Ehresmann, Minnesota Department of Health and ACIP member, is quoted as cautioning, “But it’s not necessarily effective or perhaps even appropriate to be making those determinations at the 11- to 12-year-old age.”

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.