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The HPV Vaccine and Female Sexuality

NPR reports on a new study that finds that getting the vaccine against HPV infection does not cause teenage girls to become more sexually active than those who don’t. That part is pretty unremarkable to me. What is more interesting is what this says about societal attitudes about female sexuality:

When it comes to sex and daughters, evidence doesn’t trump emotion. Julie Stewart is one of those parents. She told NPR’s Richard Knox last fall that it seems premature to be giving her preteen daughter a vaccine to protect against cervical cancer, which can be caused by HPV.

“I realize it’s probably more about my squeamishness with the thought of her becoming sexually active than the vaccination itself,” Stewart says. “It’s not the science. I think it’s my own issues around her developing sexually.”…

Earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that teenage boys get the HPV vaccine too, but that decision hasn’t sparked nearly as much worry as has vaccinating girls.

I’ve heard this attitude repeatedly throughout my life, especially from fathers. A lot of them actively root for their teenage sons to have sex but lose their minds over the idea of their daughters having sex. I’m not sure who the boys are supposed to have sex with in such a scenario, but irrationality is clearly what we’re dealing with here. But this is the natural result of religious traditions regarding sex. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all obsess over female virginity, but not over male virginity. Their god commands the stoning of women who are not virgins on their wedding day, but prescribes no such punishment for men.

And in the Bible, if an unmarried, and presumably virginal, woman is raped, her rapist need only pay her father a tidy sum and he gets to keep the woman — because she is owned by her father until ownership is transferred to her husband, and if she loses her virginity she is damaged goods. This is the misogynistic root of all this emotional nonsense about female sexuality. And it’s time we got rid of it.

Comments

  1. Mr Ed says

    I think the vaccine is supposed to be given before children are sexually active so when girls, or boys, get the shot they are still in the sex is yucky age. Getting the HPV vaccine is as likely to make girls seek out sex as the tetanus shot is to make me seek out rusty nails.

  2. steve oberski says

    I’m not sure who the boys are supposed to have sex with in such a scenario

    The daugthers from some other tribe of course. After pillaging their villages and stealing their livestock. And slaughtering the males and “damaged” females.

    And these are the same people who claim that we don’t share a common ancestor with other primates.

  3. rork says

    The nerd who studies HPV in head and neck cancers reminds you:

    Head and Neck cancers are getting more common despite less smoking. It’s almost all due to HPV. It’s mostly men. Maybe next year HPV-caused cancer deaths in men will exceed those for women.
    Men will probably continue to be doing certain things to other people with their oral cavities besides talking, perhaps more so than in the past. Get them vaxed. It’ll help protect their partners too.

  4. Alverant says

    Women can get pregnent after having sex. Men don’t. I wonder if that’s part of the cause of why fathers fear their daughters having sex, they’re not ready to become grandparents. However if their son impregnants a girl, then it’s easier to ignore.

  5. eric says

    The whole resistance thing is completely nonsensical, even from an emotional perspective. HPV was first linked to cervical cancer in the late ’70s and early `80s. In terms of how HPV might affect some woman’s decision to have sex, a girl or woman getting the vaccine today is in exactly the same health position as all the women from 1,000,000 BC through about 1976.

  6. says

    “I realize it’s probably more about my squeamishness with the thought of her becoming sexually active than the vaccination itself,” Stewart says. “It’s not the science. I think it’s my own issues around her developing sexually.”…

    At least this parent is being HONEST about her feelings. That’s an important step in this debate.

    …Getting the HPV vaccine is as likely to make girls seek out sex as the tetanus shot is to make me seek out rusty nails.

    Mr. Ed wins at least a dozen tubes for this. I can’t believe it’s so easy for adults to forget how they actually felt and thought about sex when they were younger. It’s nowhere near as simple as “any hint it’s okay makes them crazy and uncontrollable.”

  7. Captain Mike says

    Getting the HPV vaccine is as likely to make girls seek out sex as the tetanus shot is to make me seek out rusty nails. – Mr. Ed

    Stealing this.

  8. thalwen says

    Alverant:
    No it isn’t about pregnancy because we have reliable and very effective ways to prevent pregnancy that people who oppose HPV vaccines oppose too, because slutty slut-sluts. It is about the idea that a father owns his daughter’s sexuality (purity rings/balls being a very explicit and creepy way of demonstrating this) until he sells her to her new owner and no one wants to be in the position of selling off “damaged goods”

  9. zippythepinhead says

    Fear of pregnancy and all the other STDs hasn’t stopped teens from having sex, yet a vaccine for a cancer you might get in 20 years is going to … uhhhh, what?

  10. AsqJames says

    A lot of them actively root for their teenage sons to have sex but lose their minds over the idea of their daughters having sex.

    I have both a son (19) and a daughter (16) and I recognise that I have been socially conditioned towards this kind of attitude. Not exactly in the extreme terms Ed puts it here, but it is somewhere there within me to an extent.

    I think part of it is grounded in society’s expectations of the different reactions boys and girls should have to relationships breaking down. The socially constructed expectations and the outcomes which logically follow from them go something like this:

    Girls, being more driven by, and dependent on, emotions trade physical intimacy (which they don’t particularly want to give) for the emotional intimacy they need/desire.

    Boys on the other hand want to get physical and don’t really care about emotional or intellectual compatibility. In fact boys probably don’t have emotions at all.

    So when a relationship breaks down (whether it be after a single inexperienced fumble in the back row of the cinema, or after months/years of partnership), boys are disappointed to have lost their source (or potential source) of physical relief, but they still have their hand to fall back on until they can snag another girl. But girls are emotionally traumatised because they’ve invested some deep and meaningful part of their self and seen it rejected.

    I know that’s complete bollocks. I know the pain that I felt as a teenager and as an adult in the aftermath of break ups. I know my daughter well enough to know she’s interested in the physical appearance of the guys she hangs around with (even if talking about such things is embarrassing to both of us) and I know my son is as emotional and sensitive as the next person of any gender.

    Nevertheless, that attitude is in me somewhere. It’s most prominent when dealing with current events or situations (where are you going tonight? when will you be back? who else will be there?) where afterwards I know I’ve treated them differently beyond what would be reasonable given their personal physical/mental characteristics. When considering the longer term (as with the HPV vaccine (which she had)) it’s easier to be rational I think.

    Not really sure where I’m going with this, other than to say I can sympathise with parents who have similar thoughts/feelings/motivations. It doesn’t mean I don’t think they have a responsibility to try to think more clearly, accept evidence where it is available, treat their children as equally as possible, etc. But I do recognise that none of us are entirely in control of how we think.

  11. says

    While I have no doubt that there are those who view their daughters as property, and that’s certainly the origin of the cultural taboos against female sexuality, I don’t think that’s the cause of most parents’ queasiness about the idea that their daughters might have sex. It seems to me that most people still buy the idea that women are always the “prey” in heterosexual relationships. They don’t have any real control over the relationships, so parents may think that if they get themselves into any sexual relationship they put themselves at greater risk for getting into a bad relationship, being corrupted, etc. Boys are expected to be in control of the sexual relationship because they’re tye “predators” and are encouraged to be that way. They are taught to conquer while girls are taught to be conquered, and ironically, the very ones who taught girls to submit tend to not like the idea of their child being vulnerable in a relationship. Doesn’t make it much better, but I always say it’s best to know the root cause of a behavior if you want to correct it.

  12. baal says

    As to the age thing…the point is to get your immune system doing the protection you want *before* you need that protection. Given that, it’s not rational to wait too long. Also, can’t believe we needed a study. Mere thinking should get you past “ewww pre-teen will have sex someday”.

  13. left0ver1under says

    “I realize it’s probably more about my squeamishness with the thought of her becoming sexually active than the vaccination itself,” Stewart says. “It’s not the science. I think it’s my own issues around her developing sexually.”…

    How utterly predictable. Those who are against (or don’t want to get) HPV vaccinations are the same people who are inept when teaching their own kids sex education.

    No doubt these are the same people who oppose Sex Ed. being taught in schools. It’s not sand that they’re putting their heads in.

  14. says

    It seems to me that most people still buy the idea that women are always the “prey” in heterosexual relationships.

    That’s the hypothesis I favor, though I’d say it’s a subconscious idea for most people.

  15. steve84 says

    Historically, guarding female virginity and sexuality was the only way for men to make sure that their children were really theirs.

  16. lofgren says

    But this is the natural result of religious traditions regarding sex. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all obsess over female virginity, but not over male virginity.

    This seems simplistic to me. I suspect a bit more discomfort amongst fathers over their daughters’ sexuality than their sons’ is probably pretty much natural and even unavoidable, simply because women’s sexuality is more mysterious to them than men’s. And I would not be surprised at all to learn that mothers are more uncomfortable with their sons’ sexuality than they are with their daughters’, for basically the same reason. I know that I would like to think that when my daughter is old enough I will want for her to have a satisfying, healthy sex life with partners whom she trusts, and even to seek out new sexual experiences within her comfort zone. I also know that by the time my daughter is a teenager, I will most likely have totally reversed this position and encourage her to spend all of her nights at home practicing the clarinet and to shun all boys until I’m ready for grandchildren.

    This isn’t really that big a deal, nor even much of a problem beyond any other irrational fear that we all have and cannot help. It only becomes a problem when we let unchecked irrationality actually harm our daughters (and our sons) by denying them access to birth control, sex education, or life-saving medical care like HPV vaccines.

    Whether or not I am correct that an irrational fear of the unknown is at the root of this issue (and, more generally, the patriarchy’s discomfort with all female sexuality), there is also the totally rational awareness that women have a lot more at risk from sex without commitment, and most likely always will.

    A portion of that is just an accident of biology, and again only becomes truly a problem if you don’t take steps to mitigate that risk by encouraging your children of both sexes to take responsible steps to prevent pregnancy.

    But there is a social risk, as well. Girls have much more to fear from predatory males than boys do from predatory females. I suspect the number of boys who have been date raped is a vanishing fraction of the number of girls, even amongst the gay teenagers. A popular rationalization of these rapists is that if a girl has put out before, then she either owes her date sex in return for the salad bar plate he paid for at Round Robin, or that her refusal to have sex with him is an aggravating personal insult that somehow excuses his behavior. While this is obviously in part a symptom of Christianity’s obsession with female virginity, it’s not fair to place all of the blame on religion. This is a wider social problem that transcends religion.

    While we would all love to believe that empathy and sensitivity are things that everybody is born with as components of basic human decency, there seems to be very strong evidence that they are at least to some extent learned skills. And they are skills that young boys are NOT taught. I recall an interview with a young adult author (I believe it was Alice Sebold but I may be misremembering) in which she said that one of the most shocking results of her book dealing with date rape was that she received hundreds of letters from young men who confessed that they had behaved like the boys in her book, and that they had no idea how that behavior affected the girl, sometimes even a girl they called their girlfriend and with whom they had an ongoing relationship. These men did not consciously view sex as something that they were entitled to, nor did they intend to victimize anybody. They simply lacked the emotional insight to examine their actions or appreciate their impact on other people, and frequently expressed deep remorse for what they had done.

    In fact one typical response by fathers to defend their attitude towards their daughters’ virginity is that they “know what boys are like at that age.” Probably because they were those boys, and they now feel ashamed of the way they treated women then. Can’t our society make an effort to teach boys to respect girls’ feelings (and bodily autonomy) before they get all rapey? It would do all of our children a lot of good, both the girls and the boys, in my opinion.

    And yes, again, religion and the attitude of entitlement that it encourages men to feel towards “loose” women should be faulted for standing as a major obstacle to such instruction. But as the elevatorgate incident proved, it’s not like atheists are immune. Much of the hatred that Watson received implied – or even stated outright! – that she had no right to feel uncomfortable by her stalking and later propositioning by a man because she had previous portrayed herself in ways that men might interpret as sexually liberated, such as appearing nude in a calendar. In fact she was outright accused of hypocrisy for being willing to appear in a photograph nude, but not being willing to go back to his hotel room with a man she did not know.

    tl;dr – yes, the attitude of religion towards women’s sexuality is totally fucked up, but I think we’re dealing with a chicken/egg situation here.

  17. eric says

    It seems to me that most people still buy the idea that women are always the “prey” in heterosexual relationships.

    I think some of it is also pragmatism – or if you want to be cynical, appeasement. If you live in a society of bigots who make bigoted and unfair judgements, it is often easier to tell your kids not to do the things the bigots object to (rather than rock the boat). So, very well-meaning parents who do not have any hangups about girl vs boy sexuality, might still worry more about their girls having sex, because this bigoted society responds with back-slapping in the case of boys but slutty slut slut shaming in the case of girls.

    Not every well-thinking parent is cut out to be an activist or civil rights paragon. There’s going to be a group of people sitting in the middle, somewhere between bigot and hero, who believe that there’s nothing really inherently more wrong about girls having sex vs. boys, but who will nevertheless tell their daughters not to have sex because of the higher and completely unfair consequences that this bigoted society imposes on sexually active women.

  18. iknklast says

    A comment on mother’s feeling more queasy about their sons having sex – not in my experience (granted, that’s anedotal). I’ve never witnessed that, in my own mother or other women I’ve known (for myself, I think sex is natural, and don’t see what all the silly fuss is about if your kid has been given proper instruction to protect themselves). The real focus here is on virginity, and I think we don’t consciously attribute that to father’s ownership anymore, but that is often where it arose, I suspect – the desire of men to make sure the children were their own, and the desire of the fathers to get a good bride price. I don’t think any parent would articulate it that way today, but I suspect that’s the real underlying reason. Because the reason is just it’s bad, that’s why, and it’s in the Bible, and society is built up that way, and….but the reason all those things are the way they are is pretty much about the role of women in ancient societies. It’s an artifact.

    Then there’s this:

    “I’m not sure who the boys are supposed to have sex with in such a scenario”

    Hey, what did you think temple prostitues were for? ;-)

  19. lofgren says

    because this bigoted society responds with back-slapping in the case of boys but slutty slut slut shaming in the case of girls.

    I just want to point out that this also appears to be an unfounded perception. At least one study has shown that slutshaming has little to do with actual sexual behavior. It’s a form of bullying by girls with power against those with less. So while I’m sure some parents are worried that their daughters will be known as sluts because they have been sexually active, they should be made aware that staying a virgin will not actually protect her.

  20. thalwen says

    The problem with these well-meaning parents who want to prevent their daughters with becoming “prey,” is that they are encouraging the same behaviours that teach girls to act like “prey.” By saying that a father has to protect his daughter, instead of parents teaching daughters to be independent sexual agents, to know what their boundaries are and be able to enforce them, to know how to spot and turn down predatory guys before they are in a sexual situation.

    I know that this attitude is ingrained and on many levels subconscious (and yes, its roots are in the patriarchal system of women being the property of men) and that the parents aren’t acting out of malice, but the end result is that we continue to perpetuate women as sex-givers for protection and affection and men as sex-takers because of male lust and that hasn’t really had much benefit for our society.

  21. typecaster says

    I can’t believe it’s so easy for adults to forget how they actually felt and thought about sex when they were younger. It’s nowhere near as simple as “any hint it’s okay makes them crazy and uncontrollable.”

    As so many things do, this reminds me of a Buffy episode. Two of the leads (Xander and Cordelia) have snuck into an armory to steal a missile launcher. Xander makes some crack about all these weapons getting him all excited. Cordelia asks “Does looking at weapons really make you think about sex?” The response is “I’m seventeen. Looking at linoleum makes me think about sex.”

    That said, I’ve never understood the hesitancy of these parents. When the HPV vaccine came out, we had both our son and our daughter inoculated at the earliest opportunity. For them, it was just another annoying shot, and has never seemed to make any difference in their attitudes about sex. (Which they discuss only in general terms, of course. I realized quite some time ago that there are things that they’ll never forget, and that I’ll never know about.)

    For us, it meant that there’s a whole buncha phone calls that start “I saw the doctor today, and the tests came back positive” that we’ll never have to get.

  22. abb3w says

    Lacking kids myself… is this just result of religious tradition and cultural conditioning widely written upon the “blank slate”? Or is there some other element in play that is more nature than nurture?

    Not that it makes much consequent difference to the question on the HPV vaccine.

  23. wscott says

    I think michaelbrew and lofgren are closer to the truth in that it’s more about the “traditional” way we treat men as sexual predators and women as sexual prey. Religion may bear part of the blame, sure, but those attitudes were common in pre-Christian/Judaic/Islamic cultures as well. I sympathize with parents like AsqJames; recognizing that long-held beliefs are nonsense doesn’t always magically make them go away.

    @ Mr Ed re tetanus shots and rusty nails: Good one. The analogy is a bit backwards tho, since people are not naturally inclined to seek out rusty nails, but are inclined to seek out sex. My analogy generator appears to be offline at the moment, so I can’t cmoe up with a better one.

  24. JustaTech says

    At a dinner recently with my husband’s family, his cousin was expounding on how much effort it is to keep track of his two older (high school) sons. He then went on to relate several funny stories about finding evidence that his oldest had been having unsupervised parties with girls out in their cabin. He was almost proud of the fact that his oldest, and possibly the next oldest, son was having sex. His wife seemed completely ambivilent (or didn’t want to express another opinion in public) but I was pretty horrified. Neither my husband or I could really understand this “look at my boy, getting it on!” position.

    My only guess was that they felt that since they had told their boys to be safe (and the boys were presumably doing their part) it was a-ok and there would be no further consequences.

    I said to my husband (and his parents) afterwards that the situation would have been totally different if this was a daughter (or perhaps even if they had an daughters). If it’s not good for your daughter, it’s not good for your son, so think about it.

  25. says

    I think a part of this is the perception that for a boy, getting a girl to have sex with you is difficult, and thus an accomplishment. For a girl, having sex isn’t seen as an accomplishment, because nine times out of ten she can get it just by indicating that she might be receptive to advances. For a girl, avoiding sex is perceived as more of an accomplishment than obtaining it.

    Granted, this says nothing about the difficulty of getting sex with the particular partner you want. Also granted, a task being more difficult does not make it in any way more worthwhile. But seeing your kid achieve something difficult, particularly something that you yourself also wanted at that age, makes you feel a lot better than seeing your kid achieve something that you perceive as easy.

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