Once again, dear readers, I must refer you to a well argued and superb article, this time in The Nation. What Katha Pollitt is discussing is the controversy over the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine, which is of course directly related to the war the right is waging on our sexual freedoms. I write about this issue as part of my ongoing support of Dan Savage’s “hello, straight people” campaign, because I want all you straight people out there to remember that it’s not just gay rights being eroded in this country. (Although HPV affects people of all sexual orientations, of course–all the more reason for all of us to band together and get the right out of our bedrooms.) I also write about it because it’s something you should be informed about and something you should care about if you have genitals. (Readers without genitals may peruse the archives for something of more interest, or read on, at their own choice.)
Planned Parenthood estimates that up to 20 million Americans are infected with HPV. HPV is actually an umbrella term for several viruses, which vary greatly in viral strength. Some forms of HPV are extremely nasty, and you don’t want to get them, especially if you are a woman, since as Pollitt points out HPV leads to approximately 70% of cervical cancers in women. Others are more harmless, though all should of course be tested for and treated. (Though I am loathe to admit it because I hate the annual exam, this is why an annual exam for sexually active adults of both sexes is vital.)
Alas, the most effective way to prevent yourself from being infected with HPV is abstinence. Condoms do not eliminate the risk of transmission, although they do reduce it. HPV is an excellent example of why safer sex is an awesome idea–get to know your partner, and make sure that you and your partner have both been tested for STDs recently. Remember, many forms of HPV are asymptomatic. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying yourself: just provide yourself with sensible protections.
However, there is hope on the horizon. Two major pharmaceutical companies have tested vaccines for HPV successfully. The studies have been widely written up and discussed in the medical community, most of which is excited about the news. So, in a sense, there is a cure for cancer, which is pretty neat. Obviously the drug development process always takes a long time, but the fact that the vaccines have entered human testing should be a good sign, right?
Unfortunately, as Pollitt reminds us, “we’re living in God’s country now,” and the right does not want people to have access to an HPV vaccine. To vaccinate against an STD is an utter anathema for the right. Why won’t we ever see the HPV vaccine in commercial production?
Get ready for this: it might make us slutty. Premarital sex, here I come! (Apparently the risk of HPV transmission is nil when you are having sex in the missionary position with your lawfully wedded husband or wife for the purpose of procreation. No, seriously.) Pollitt says this better than I can: “Raise your hand if you think that what is keeping girls virgins now is the threat of getting cervical cancer when they are 60 from a disease they’ve probably never heard of.” It’s intriguing to me that diseases like polio are fully preventable via vaccine, and parents who fail to vaccinate their children are chastised. But apparently a fully preventable STD should be allowed to continue to flourish, mutate, and ravage sexually active Americans. If smallpox was a sexually transmissible disease, would we all be covered in pustulating pox sores right now?
The right has dug in its heels in resistance to the vaccine, even though it would save women’s lives. With an extensive vaccination campaign, we could stamp out HPV, like we did with polio and smallpox. Curiously for a “right to life” movement, the right would apparently prefer that women die of painful cancers than have access to preventative care which might cause them to engage in more sexual activity. (Now be honest with me, my readers: how many of you have refrained from sexual activity because of the risk of HPV? Don’t be shy.) Approximately 2,800 American women will die of HPV-induced cervical cancer this year. That’s 2,800 sisters, mothers, friends, daughters…2,800 lives that an HPV vaccine could have saved.
What is the deal here? Is the right seriously so afraid of sexuality that they want to condemn women to death? Because let me tell you something: men do not die of HPV, any more than men die giving birth. HPV certainly is no fun for either sex, but for women it comes with extra sauce, so to speak. We need to take back the night, as it were, before it’s too late.
This is a war about sexual freedoms, and both sexes need to work together, but for women the assault on our rights carries another risk: our lives.