My sources tell me that today, the immunization committee at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is debating whether to recommend the use of Gardasil, a vaccine against HPV, for use with male patients. HPV, or the human papillomavirus, is the most common of sexually-transmitted infections; the CDC estimates that 50% of sexually active adults will acquire HPV at one point over the course of their lives. Some suggest that the percentage is higher still.
HPV has been conclusively linked to cervical cancer. Since 2006, Gardasil has been approved by the FDA for use in inoculating women against HPV. Because the best form of protection is prevention, many health experts recommend vaccinating girls before they become sexually active. Given the grim reality that HPV can be easily transmitted through non-consensual sex, and given the ease with which the virus is spread through oral sex, vaccinating girls before the onset of puberty is encouraged. (This has led, of course, to predictable howls from the religious right, who are less concerned with protecting young women’s health and more concerned that a vaccine against HPV might encourage pre-marital sexual exploration.)
But as an article in the brand-new issue of Ms. Magazine makes clear, HPV poses a greater threat to men and boys than was previously known. The Adina Nack piece is not available online, but here’s a quote from what’s available on your newsstand:
While it is fears of cervical cancer that
have motivated young women to get HPV vaccines,
thatâ€™s not the only cancer caused by this virus: It can lead
to oral, anal and penile cancers as well. In fact, the combined
U.S. death rates for these cancers are at least twice
that of cervical cancers… Some researchers, in fact, believe that
HPV may soon cause more oral cancers in the U.S. than
alcohol or tobacco combined.
As a result of this research, the CDC may well soon recommend that boys and young men also be inoculated with Gardasil, as the connection between HPV and oral/anal cancer becomes as apparent as it already is with cervical cancer.
Nack emphasizes that men’s health is a feminist issue:
Womenâ€™s healthâ€”especially reproductive healthâ€”is usually
the focus of sexual-health discussions but menâ€™s health
also deserves womenâ€™s attentionâ€”and not just because
women care about their sons, male partners and male
friends. It almost goes without saying that women can also
be infected by their intimate partners, and since the great
majority of women primarily have heterosexual relations,
that usually means by men.
In fact, menâ€™s health is an even larger feminist issue.
â€œFeminists have a vested interest in advocating for policies
and circumstances around the world that shape menâ€™s ability
to develop healthy sex lives, which, by definition, has
to include respect for the rights of those with whom they
partner, regardless of gender,â€ says Patricia Rieker, Ph.D.,
a sociologist at Boston University and Harvard Medical
School and coauthor of Gender and Health (Cambridge
University Press, 2008).
The truth is, if women donâ€™t prioritize menâ€™s health,
weâ€™re not just losing a chance to foster the overall health
of our communities, weâ€™re actually putting ourselves and
future generations at risk
It is axiomatic that women of all ages are more willing to seek medical treatment than are men. The “sturdy oak” myth of robust masculinity makes it difficult for boys and men to acknowledge vulnerability. Our cultural narrative about heterosexuality tends to suggest that women are emotionally and physiologically more fragile — and more likely to “suffer” from sex. That “expectation of female suffering” (associated with everything from first penetration to pregnancy to increased vulnerability to STIs to the guarantee of heartbreak after a break-up or abortion) is matched with a narrative of male imperviousness to harm. We like to pretend that boys are dense, violent, and comparatively shallow. But boys do cry, and boys do get hurt, and as the latest research shows, boys do get HPV-related cancers too.
Feminists have done much to dispatch the myth of female frailty. They have also been on the frontlines of fighting against this myth of the invulnerable male. It is no surprise then that we find this important clarion call for male sexual health in the pages of Ms. Magazine.