Virgin Territory: Why the HPV Vaccine for Boys May Be a Tough Sell The HPV Vaccine For Boys May Be a Tough Sell
Controversy around the HPV vaccine has always been about policing sexuality. The CDC's latest move will be no exception.
The HPV vaccine, which is currently administered to preteen girls in order to prevent cervical cancer, is now recommended for boys, too. A CDC advisory committee voted unanimously yesterday that young boys receive the shots to prevent a range of diseases, including genital warts, anal cancer and possibly throat cancer. The vaccine would also help prevent their future sexual partners from contracting the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Sadly, these medical justifications are unlikely to quell the uproar that has surrounded the drug since its approval in 2006. When the FDA gave Gardasil the initial okay, the religious right decried the vaccine for promoting promiscuity. The Family Research Council's Bridget Maher said that young women "may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex." Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, said HPV is "100 percent preventable with proper sexual behavior. Premarital sex is dangerous, even deadly. Let's not encourage it by vaccinating 10-year-olds so they think they're safe." A Cincinnati mother worried, “We haven’t even talked about the birds and the bees yet. [My daughter] needs to be innocent a little bit longer.” Read between the lines: If we protect girls now against contracting diseases in the future, they'll think they're allowed to slut it up free of consequences.
Fast-forward to 2011, and the debate continues to rage. The HPV vaccine has made its way into the GOP primary debates, where Michele Bachmann expressed her concern for "innocent little 12-year-old girls" and claimed (erroneously) that the vaccine caused "mental retardation." As of this year, only a third of preteen girls have received the full three shots needed to be protected against the most dangerous strains of the virus. Despite the fact that most sexually active people will contract some form of HPV, the controversy has scared many people off.
Could the recent recommendation for boys help democratize the discussion? After all, a promiscuous young man always fails to ignite the firestorm that accompanies the sexual activity of his female peers. So far, though, it looks unlikely that the expansion of the vaccine to boys will inspire more rational discussion of the issue. Instead, the religious right may just get a little more creative.
There are two main reasons the CDC recommends that boys be vaccinated: To protect the women they have sex with in the future, and to prevent anal cancer, which is mainly a risk for men who have sex with men. It's not hard to predict where the argument turns from there. Some parents may say "'Why are you vaccinating my son against anal cancer? He's not gay! He's not ever going to be gay!' I can see that will come up," Dr. Ranit Mishori told the Associated Press. By the logic of Bachmann and the Cincinnati mother, a boy's "innocence" can be lost, too, if the vaccine inspires him to engage in gay sex—or, just as bad, equips him to steal the innocence of our vaccine-free daughters.
Opposition to the HPV vaccine has always been about policing female sexuality. Now that the discussion has shifted to men, opponents will likely tweak their arguments to focus their misplaced concern on the people these men are having sex with—be it their "innocent" young daughters or "immoral" other men.