The XX Factor

A Couple of Newish Stories on Sexual Health


Photo by Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images.

I’m a big fan of repackaging information that reproductive health experts have known for a long time into new studies that can be sent around with press releases. While it can be a little tiresome to be constantly told what you already know about reproductive health issues, most of the public doesn’t actually know this stuff, so constant regurgitation can actually clue a few more people onto the facts. This week, there have been two stories that fall into that category: The American Cancer Society released information about rising throat cancer rates due to HPV, and a new study reveals that abortion is safer than childbirth. And not just a little, either. By my calculations, you’re about 15 times more likely to die in childbirth than from an abortion. All this has been known in reproductive health circles for awhile but is probably new information to most Americans.

I’ll admit, I’m a little frustrated with Gawker’s coverage of the HPV story. I don’t have a problem with them using the fact that the rise in throat cancers is related to oral sex as an opportunity to make blow job jokes. It’s really not a sunny day without a blow job joke, after all. But their eagerness to introduce skepticism into the whole claim that there’s an oral sex-cancer link causes the blogger Caity Weaver to confuse the issue. For instance, she writes: “The American Cancer Society’s report analyzed data taken from patients between 1999 and 2008. If you think people didn’t have oral sex before 1999, you need to watch Remember The 80’s.”

Funny, but misleading. Most HPV-caused cancers take many, many years to manifest. The average age of diagnosis for HPV-caused cervical cancer is 48, but generally, the virus was transmitted to the patient in her teens or twenties. So while Weaver’s right that it’s ridiculous to think men (and the throat cancer rise is only in men) raised on Internet porn were the first generation to consider snacking downtown in large numbers, in reality we’re talking more about guys who were weaned on The Joy of Sex and Playboy, as confirmed by the fact that the biggest rise is in men ages 55 to 64. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that Boomer men went down more than the previous generation, honestly. If you listen to Dan Savage’s interview with researcher Dr. Ted Teknos, you’ll find that indeed the theory behind the relatively small spike in cases is that cunnilingus became a far more common practice with Baby Boomers than previous generations. I guess women have been going down longer, a fact that should surprise exactly no one.

Weaver does address in the second half of her post the fact that HPV has a latency period. That’s important, but unfortunately can make it confusing for the average reader, who may struggle to understand that information in relation to the skepticism she garners with jokes about oral sex being invented in the ‘90s. The latency period is why this explosion is happening now, decades after oral sex became more common.*

The important thing with all these stories is to remember not to worry too much. Dying from either childbirth or abortion is so rare in modern America that you can feel free to choose either without too much concern, unless, of course, you have a medical history that raises your chances of childbirth complications. (Certainly, if that’s the case, abortion becomes even more starkly safer than childbirth.) While throat cancer is no joke, it doesn’t mean you have to give up your favorite hobby, either. It’s still a relatively rare cancer, and even though it’s caused by HPV, it’s linked with smoking, as well. Putting your beloved’s junk in your mouth is still a safer way to pass the time than smoking, eating a bunch of junk food, or drinking too much. And if you’re under 26 years old, you’re eligible to get the HPV vaccine and never have to worry about catching that nasty but common bug.

*Update, Jan. 30, 2012: This post was clarified to reflect the scope of Gawker’s reporting.