The bad news first, and it is bad.
In case you haven’t heard, scientists have established a link between oral sex and throat cancer. Here’s the scoop from my favorite sex columnist, Dan Savage:
“Researchers believe,” reports New Scientist, “[that] oral sex may transmit human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus implicated in the majority of cervical cancers,” and the virus lodges in the throat, where it can cause cancer. Study subjects infected with HPV were 32 times more likely to develop throat cancer; folks who tested positive for one highly aggressive strain of the virus, HPV-16, were 58 times more likely to develop throat cancer. Smoking, previously believed to be the culprit behind most throat cancers, only triples a person’s risk. (A new slogan for the tobacco industry: “Smoke cigs, not pole.”)
But before we panic—it’s just one study—let’s put throat cancer in perspective.
Despite the fact that nearly all Americans engage in oral sex, throat cancer accounts for a tiny percentage of the roughly 1.5 million cases of cancer diagnosed every year. According to the Cancer Facts & Figures report released by the American Cancer Society in 2007, we will see 35,000 cases of oral cancer this year—that’s tongue, mouth, pharynx, and “other oral cavity.” That compares to 271,000 cases of digestive-system cancers, 229,000 cases of respiratory cancers, 220,000 cases of prostate cancer, and 180,000 cases of breast cancer.
And let’s put HPV in perspective, too. While most sexually active adults are exposed to HPV at some point, our immune systems usually “clear” the virus on their own. So not every HPV exposure leads to infection, and not every HPV infection is lifelong. Clearly, men and women need to keep an eye on their throats—and researchers are, according to reports, working on a saliva test for HPV—because when it comes to cancer, early detection saves lives.
Now the good news. The new HPV vaccine offers women protection against the virus–100% protection if the vaccine is given before she becomes sexually active. Until now, as you probably know, the Religious Right has been doing everything it can to block approval and distribution of this vaccine because (get out your vapors) the very idea of young women having sex makes them swoon! And hey, after all, cervical cancer is a woman’s problem.
As Savage points out, expect the debate around the HPV vaccine to shift really fast.
Here’s the headline from my morning paper: “HPV Factors in Throat Cancer: Study Could Shift Debate About Vaccine.” You bet it will. Up to now the HPV vaccine—which, again, has proven 100 percent effective against the cancer-causing strains of the virus—could merely prevent 10,000 cases of cervical cancer in American women every year, along with 4,000 deaths. But now the debate could shift—it will shift—because it’s no longer “just” the lives of 4,000 American women that are on the line, but the sex lives of 150 million American men.
“If men got pregnant,” goes the bumper sticker, “abortion would be a sacrament.” Now that straight men can get cancer from eating pussy, the HPV vaccine is going to go from controversial to sacramental faster than you can say, “Suck my dick.”
Or, “Not on my life, baby!”