HPV vaccinations = sex without consequences?

How ignorant do conservatives think American girls are? Michelle Bachmann recently re-ran this old chestnut on Jay Leno. She’s concerned (and no doubt wringing her hands and clutching her pearls) that if we give girls HPV vaccinations:

“The concern is that there’s, you know, potentially side effects that can come with something like that. But it gives a false sense of assurance to a young woman when she has that that if she’s sexually active that she doesn’t have to worry about sexually transmitted diseases.”

Let’s be fair. Teens and pre-teens operate under a staggering amount of misinformation. They also lack the life experience that can help improve one’s judgment in maturity. So, maybe in thinking teenage girls would misunderstand the point of the vaccine, conservatives aren’t completely out in left field. I’m sure some girls might misunderstand – a small minority.

Or am I wrong about it being a small minority? After all, when I was 13 or 14, YOU WERE GOING TO DIE OF AIDS FROM KISSING OR USING PUBLIC TOILETS. No vaccine could possibly have made my friends and I think sex was safe.

In any case, surely these vaccinations could come with some instruction. Surely the practitioners administering them could be required to explain that the shot does not protect them from herpes, HIV and all the other STDs out there. Are conservatives really arguing that teenage girls told “This shot will not prevent STDs” are going to assume the shot will prevent STDs anyway? Or are they arguing that doctors and other medical practitioners might not be so bothered to inform every patient about this, even if it is legally required? Perhaps they’re concerned that, say, doctors might look at girls who aren’t virgins or girls of color or girls from whatever groups they find icky, and assume “Well, she’s going to catch something sooner or later?”

If only. Prejudice in the medical community does harm patients, but I don’t think for a minute conservatives care about that. And while teenage girls can be very ignorant, I have trouble believing that some part of the phrase, “This shot does not protect you from STDs, so you will still need to use a condom to be safe” would escape very many of them.

Oh, wait, that’s right. We mustn’t inform youngsters about safe sex.

See, I keep asking myself: if teenage girls really are that confused, whose fault might that be? Perhaps George W. Bush, and his “Ignorance Only” sex education? “Glamour” magazine reports that young women are more ignorant today than my generation was at that age:

“I’ve traveled the country talking to college-age women and am shocked at how uninformed they were,” says Lissa Rankin, M.D., an ob-gyn and author of What’s Up Down There? “There’d be 60 people in the room, and I’d get 300 cards with queries on them – and these were not advanced questions.” Orli Etingin, M.D., medical director of the Iris Cantor Women’s Health Center in New York City, agrees: “Young women don’t know as much as they used to about their sexual health. The problem is, women now believe that because they can go to the Web, it eliminates the need for them to have a base of knowledge about their body.”

I sort of agree with Etingin, but suspect it’s more a case of them not having any resources but the web. Loads of American parents just won’t discuss this stuff with kids – that’s for schools to do, they say. And we all know what happened to sex education in schools under Bush. Here’s an article about what happened when he, as governor, implemented that policy in Texas alone:

Unfortunately, despite spending more than $10 million on abstinence-only programs in Texas alone, this strategy has not been shown to be effective at curbing teen pregnancies or halting the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. During President Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, for instance, with abstinence-only programs in place, the state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old females. Overall, the teen pregnancy rate in Texas was exceeded by only four other states.

And you can read more about what it’s done to the nation and even the world here from Melissa McEwan (follow her links for even more information).

“Abstinence Only” would be considered a success if its goal was to increase teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs, particularly among the poor and minorities – the girls most likely to suffer from this dearth of information. So if teenage girls are too ignorant to understand that a vaccine against the sexual transmission of a particular cancer does not prevent other STDs, the conservatives have only themselves to blame.

Or, you know, maybe this whole rather tenuous slippery slope argument is part of a larger agenda to saddle certain people with unwanted babies and STDs… and cancer. Once again, I have to wonder: do conservatives just want women to die of cancer? Are they just wannabe serial killers looking for clever ways to, um, oops, accidentally help ensure that women die?


  1. says

    I went to a Catholic middle school in the late 90’s/early 00’s, so maybe this is skewing my perceptions, but the internet was the best source of information I had. There’s a joke pamphlet, Instruction and Advice for the Young Bride, pretending to give turn of the century advice on sex. When I read it at 12 or so, I was laughing at the outdated attitude of the pretend person who wrote it – but I was also saying to myself, “Kissing down there? That’s a thing?” And sadly enough, I often gave basic sex ed to my classmates (the penis gets bigger when it’s needed and smaller when it’s not, the penis goes inside the vagina, there’s this wonderful thing called the clit). Basic sex ed I had gleaned from the internet, filled with misinformation and misunderstood information, but it was better than we got at home or from our teachers.

    A lot of people do correlate the possibility of having sex with actually doing it (and doing it Wrong). Like a friend of mine in high school who wouldn’t go to the gynecologist for severe cramps because he might prescribe medication that could also be used for birth control, and then everyone would think she was a Dirty Girl. So instead she suffered every month. I couldn’t understand it at the time, but now that I’m older I can look back and see the social pressures (*cough* misogyny) that created this Possibility=Actuality=Shame! attitude that left my friend in debilitating pain every month.

    I never got the HPV vaccination because when (where?) I went, it would have cost me around $80. Now it’s down to $20 or so at my local PP, I think.

  2. Dani says

    Sometimes (okay, more than sometimes), I wonder if the old “lie back and think of England” mindset is still alive and well 100+ years later. I *had* comprehensive sex education when I was in high school, and *still* didn’t know about the existence/functions of certain parts of my own body (like the clit), until I read about them on my own, years later. The thing is, most of what I remember from that class had to do with either boys or pregnancy. Not girls. Or, at least, not non-pregnant girls.

    For me, abstinence works, and in high school, it, in a way, kept me from defining myself by how sexually attractive I was to boys. I mean, if they want sex, and I’m not giving it up…we’re kind of at an impasse. I was also taught that it was just as important for boys who practice abstinence to, well, abstain, as it was for girls. HOWEVER, the older I get, and the more perspectives I get on how different pro-abstinence communities view and teach about sex, the more I see *girls’ sexuality*, and girls’ only, being limited. It’s like, “Heaven forbid we educate girls about their own sexuality, because then they’ll throw caution to the wind and turn into a bunch of dirty whores”.

    From what I’ve seen, there seems to be something inherently sexist about abstinence-only education. The “abstinence” part is primarily directed at girls. Virgin girls, not virgin guys, are the wrapped lollipop (Grossest. Metaphor. Ever.). Girls are the ones who will be less valuable when they move from partner to partner. Girls (and this is moving out of abstinence-only education, but I think it still applies) are the ones who have to watch how they dress.

    Boys, on the other hand, “naturally” desire meaningless sex. A boy is not devalued by moving from partner to partner. Boys are more visual than girls (really? I’ve read that neuroscience is blasting that way of thinking to bits), so it’s natural that they would sexually want a lot of girls. You know, boys will be boys.

    It all boils down to the same-old-same-old: Sex is primarily for men to derive pleasure from, and women, though not considered asexual anymore, a-la the 1800s, are still here for the purpose of pleasing men.

  3. Shaun says


    I know this article is about girls and sex ed, but somewhat related is the state of sex ed in relation to disability. I’ve been coming across a lot recently how special ed classrooms don’t get ANY sex ed, including basic biology like where babies come from.

    The state of sex ed in the US is just grotesquely in need of an overhaul for so many reasons.

  4. Nialla says

    I think the problem for conservatives regarding the HPV vaccine is magnified because it’s recommended to be given before girls are sexually active, which means a very early age. They don’t want to think of any unmarried girl having sex, but when these shots are needed when they’re tweens, the adults seem to have an “OMG, I have to talk to my wee baby about S-E-X! And then they’ll have to go and do it!”

    I get the flu shot every year due to where I work. This does not mean I stop washing my hands, using hand sanitizer, and wiping down the counter with disinfectant. The vaccine doesn’t cover every strain (and new ones can pop up), and the HPV vaccine doesn’t cover all strains either, but it’s aimed at the ones associated with future potential to cause cervical cancer. It’s one tool in a much bigger war. My parents and my doctors taught me some common sense to avoid the flu and other diseases. Too bad everyone is passing the buck on teaching kids how things work [whisper] down there.

    I just can’t imagine my teen self thinking a shot was a free ride to risk-free sex. Pregnancy was a much bigger concern, plus I was a teen when AIDS first became well known. As a result, I probably got a better sex education than teens today, and while it was at school, it was not officially sanctioned in any way. One of the health teachers was so concerned we were at risk of getting a disease that could kill us through ignorance, she did an impromptu education course at the risk of her job. I’ve done my best to live up to that example in my current job, but I think too many kids rely on the Internet to parent them instead of an adult.

    You can throw all the stats you want at pearl clutchers regarding the failure of abstinence only “education” and they’ll never believe you. Or care. Simply because they have such a severe case of Not My Child in regard to their kid having sex (ever) they’re disconnected from reality. They don’t have to worry about their teen daughter having the HPV shot, because they’re not going to be having sex until marriage, and it will be totally monogamous, ergo they are not at risk for cervical cancer in the future.

  5. says

    I just don’t get it. Why can’t the HPV vaccine just be another routine vaccine kids get?? Why must it be discussed at all? My son gets regular boosters for a variety of diseases and the shots don’t cause these huge discussions about measles and mumps. If the little kid asks, just tell them HPV can make you really sick, just like the other diseases they get shots for, and it’s better to get vaccinated.

    Leave it to the conservatives to turn something that should be a non-issue into a huge freaking deal on account of their squeamishness about girls’ sexuality.

  6. I.A. Scott says

    Here I thought that people might be erroneously thinking it could also protect them from warts, apparently it’s the path to SEX ALL THE TIME.

    Received wisdom makes me think that these conservatives are just terrified of women’s sexuality but that article on the effects of the abstinence only plan (and propaganda via the CDC? -_-) makes your theory that they just want all women to die of cancer look ever stronger.

    It’s weird because the ‘boys want ALL THE SEX’ idea would mean you should be vaccinating them first ASAP – they’re the ones who are going to move the virus between (heterosexual) women.

    It would be nice.

  7. says

    I think the answer is that yes, conservatives do want women to get cancer and die. Or have to carry an unwanted child to term. Or catch an STD through ignorance. Only, of course, those women who have sex and are therefore “whores”. Conservatives can’t usually get away with saying this straight out, so they make up a lot of gibberish to cover their policies (“abortion kills babies!”). One exception was in the eighties and early nineties when they really could get away with saying “AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality”, and they did. Since then they’ve had to be a little more discreet; this discretion has been successful enough that many people who are not quite conservative enough to think that way buy the gibberish and support policies like abstinence education whose only real effect is to ensure that women who do have sex suffer unpleasant consequences.

    I had sex ed in school, but it was part of biology class; I learned a fair bit about the plumbing in both sexes, but nothing at all about reasons to have sex, or not, let alone discussion of issues of consent, risk management, sexual orientation or gender identity. Those I picked up from, I think, sex-advice columns in a free weekly urban newspaper. It was a revelation to me to see a site like Scarleteen that tried to teach young people all the things they were likely to want to know when becoming sexually active or considering it. That made me realize just how far sex education in schools had to go.

  8. Nialla says

    JT, there’s been some scientists saying perhaps the vaccine should be done at an even earlier age like other vaccines, to remove it (at least from the conservative mind) from the idea that the HPV vaccine is like a gateway drug to tweens having sex. Lumping it in with other vaccines, which still have opt outs for those who don’t want it for whatever reason, might make it just another shot.

    I think it should also be available for boys. While they don’t have the girl parts that can get cancer, they can transmit it to their partner. Doing so might help give more “herd immunity” to protect women who don’t get the vaccine.

  9. Red says


    Which is totally ridiculous and outright FALSE. They could STILL contract cervical cancer even if they were a virgin bride.

    Seriously, this way of thinking only contributes to the problem.

  10. Shaun says


    Actually they CAN get cancer. HPV causes anal cancer, but the medical community seems to assume none of those boys will ever have anal sex. So the HPV vaccine, now that it’s available for men/boys too (it wasn’t original) should definitely be taken by gay/bisexual men into that sort of thing.

  11. Nialla says

    Red, of course you and I know “virgin brides” can still get cervical cancer. Not only due to cheatings spouses, but simply because certain strains of HPV increase your odds of cervical cancer, but it’s not the only cause. Personally, I’d go with better odds, but apparently for some conservatives, if it involves naughty bits, you can just die of cancer, Amen.

    Shaun, yes, men can get anal cancer via HPV exposure, but from what I’ve read, the incidence of that is much lower than cervical cancer, which is why they wanted to target females first. If I remember correctly (been a while since I’ve read details, and the vaccine has been tweaked since then), they also included strains that can cause genital warts in both sexes. While you’re at it, might as well prevent that too.

    I really do hope men are included in vaccine programs, from gay to straight and in between. It’s not a “women’s health” issue, it’s a health issue. It currently seems (to conservatives) that it’s yet another way to “allow” girls to have sex, therefore it must be something terrible, so they can just get cancer later instead of getting a license to be a whore now. I imagine if they discovered it prevented testicular cancer, a lot of people would be singing a different tune. Or simply not talking about it at all and making it part of the recommended vaccine schedule, which people can opt out of for a variety of reasons anyway.

    It’s yet another non-issue being blown out of proportion by politicians for their own gain. Keep people distracted by such things, and they’ll forget to ask politicians questions that are actually important, and the politician probably doesn’t even know what they’re talking about in the first place. Even those who do ask tough questions get drowned out by those creating and sustaining the media storms.

  12. Shaun says


    Even if the incidence rate were extremely low among MSM you’re spot on about the herd immunity thing. It makes no sense, from an epidemiological perspective, to only administer a treatment to half the population, yet this is exactly how public health and education is run. There’s one birth control option for boys and twenty for girls (and they all suck), and the educational emphasis (in my experience) is on teaching girls not to have sex. In my state, low-income women have access to a sexual health program men do not, which covers mostly stuff not applicable to cis men, as well as STD testing and contraceptives. Thankfully PP will provide all this for anyone who asks if you know to go to them, but if you were treating say, a flu epidemic, you wouldn’t design an intervention treating only half the population. It’s only when something is remotely related to sex that people get weird and stupid about it.

  13. sbg says


    If you know or are willing. It’s troubling to me how the fundie attitude toward PP has probably impacted the number of women who can and/or should use them. Frex, a sister of mine was having some trouble earlier this year, with her health and with her finances. Under normal circumstances, I would have suggested she find a PP office for some assistance. Because she’s a hardcore Catholic, that would only have resulted in a rush of phone calls all putting me back to the top of the prayer chain.

    “Did you hear that SBG recommended That Abortion Place to XX?”

  14. says

    I’m beginning to define fundamentalism as a philosophy in which people break any popular religion down into extremely OVERsimplified answer’s to life’s problems. Only have sex like this. Vote for A. Vote against B. People who think differently = enemies no matter how wonderful they are, and people who think like you = friends even if they molest your kids or something, WHICH OF COURSE THEY DIDN’T. Very appealingly simple. You never have to think again, and you are never responsible for your decisions because someone else made them for you. Must be an extremely stress-free lifestyle, because then, when the simple solutions fail or backfire in your face, you just go into denial. It didn’t fail! Well, it failed, but only because we’ve been too tolerant of gays and feminists by merely hating on and oppressing them when we should’ve been lynching them!

    Orwell wasn’t describing a possible future. He was trying to tell people how unsustainable society is if people keep choosing “Whatever, so long as I don’t have to think” over using their brains and then being held accountable for the fruits of their decisions.

  15. Shaun says


    That’s so annoying and inherently self-defeating, especially for someone who needs services.

    I just talked to my (Republican) Senator’s office about an autism bill we want not to pass this week. I made one point about an organization that receives a grant from the CDC trying to develop a prenatal test for selective abortion purposes, among one of several points in answer to a question about it.

    I talked for nearly 10 minutes about the bill, and when I was finished? The only point that had stuck with the guy was that some organization might be receiving federal funds in a way connected to abortion–not selective abortion, just abortion. In hindsight it’s not really surprising, and I’d rather they target something like that than PP, but I did kind of feel like they’d missed the point of why we were there.

  16. Patrick McGraw says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    I think fundamentalism is essentially just authoritarianism with religion as the justifying ideology.

    I’m reminded of a line from another dystopia, in the film Equilibrium (a.k.a. Christian Bale Shoots Lots of People):

    Vice-Counsel Dupont: It is not the message that is important, it is our obedience to the message. Call it “faith.”

  17. Robin says

    Sylvia Sybil, a friend and I were discussing this thing just last night. We are both lucky to be part of the generation who were in (public) high school during the mid-90s era of “We must teach the children how not to get AIDS!” There was a lot of emphasis on the physiology and functionality of both sets of reproductive organs — not so much sexuality itself or relationships or how to communicate with your partner beyond “No means no” — and how not to get pregnant or contract STDs. (Though I have admit, the most effective tool in my health class was a video of a woman going through natural childbirth. That made 14-year-old me vow to never have unprotected sex.)

    The things I’m hearing about kids today being not taught those same things fills me with rage, because the abstinence-only policies are actively putting those kids at risk for a whole host of diseases, including HPV-induced cancers. Not to mention the fact that teen pregnancy rates in Texas under current governor Ricky Perry’s strict abistinence-only program have actually increased (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/shawn-lawrence-otto/rick-perry-abstinence_b_904115.html) because those kids don’t even know the consequences of their actions, let alone how easily they could be prevented.

  18. sbg says


    Plus, y’know, it’s been a truth almost universally known that if you order your kids not to do something, ever, never, EVER, that is the one thing they will most want to do.

    And will do it, only without any information or education, they will do it stupidly.

  19. says

    Robin: There was a lot of emphasis on the physiology and functionality of both sets of reproductive organs — not so much sexuality itself or relationships or how to communicate with your partner beyond “No means no”

    This sounds somewhat like the Sex Ed class I had in a public high school (early 00’s). Biology diagrams of what we look like on the inside, nothing about what we look like on the outside or how to interact with that. The only photographs of genitalia that were allowed to be shown to us were the highly warped results of leaving STDs untreated. Even at the time, I admired the subtlety of the message behind that: “Genitals are scary, diseased things that will cause your OWN genitals to rot away!”. Our curriculum paid lip service to condoms but gave no information on how to put one on or how to use lube or anything.

    But as bad as it was at my “abstinence-first” public high school, I know it was worse for the classmates I left behind at the Catholic school. *shudder*

  20. Casey says

    In my sex ed classes from middle school all the way to high school (’02~’08) aside from the ‘ol LOLPUBERTY spiel, they were surprisingly comprehensive when it came to discussing forms of birth control and protection (I’m talking the pill, diaphragms, dental-dams, weird-metal-twisty things you stuck in your uterus for months at a time or SOMETHING, calculating your period based on the moon and the tides, condoms and the variations thereof (latex, sheepskin, etc.), how to apply lube and yes, the awful “genitals covered in STD-caused weeping sores/inexplicable mold” scare-tactics photos. We also got to watch videos of penises getting erections in weird x-ray “see all the blood flow into it!” vision, plus a documentary of semen as it entered the vagina (how do they get cameras that small?) along with a child-birthing scene (the class was disgusted; most of the boys were grossed out because “Eww, she’s got a hairy bush!” *sigh*). HOWEVER, despite learning all this stuff they didn’t really teach us about “no-means-no” and I didn’t even understand the full mechanics of heterosexual (or any other kind of sexual) sex until I read “The Cosmo Kama-Sutra”.[/facepalm]

  21. says

    I’m getting the pained feeling I’m one of a small minority of people in this thread who had the benefit of a parent telling them the mechanics of sex. Is that right?

    The really strange thing is, I’ve noticed anecdotally among friends and acquaintences that most of the women I know who started having sex later than average age had a trusted adult at home who taught them about sex and was open to questions as they got older. I also know women in that situation who started around the average age… but a lot of the women I know who started earlier had no clue what they were getting into, and experience was the only way they were going to find out. I’d love to see a study done on this, because I have a feeling ignorance pushes girls to experiment with sex. What I learned about sex gave me a healthy perspective on it – it wasn’t the mysterious solution to all life’s problems, it was a bodily function that came with potential side effects ranging from life-enhancing wondrousness to death. Kind of like a car – it could mean freedom, and it could kill you… it was all in knowing what you were doing with it.

  22. Raeka says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    Just wanted to say my parents sat me and my siblings down and had a talk on the mechanics AND emotional side of sex, and if my school hadn’t covered birth control, they probably would have talked about that, too.

    So if you’re a minority, I’m in there with you : )

  23. says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    My mom will tell you her policy was to answer direct questions honestly, on the hypothesis that if we were old enough to ask, we were old enough to know. Two problems with that: one, I had a lot of questions for which I didn’t know the words, and two, on several very important questions (“how close do the man and woman have to be to make a baby?”) she flinched and brushed me off.

    I think coming from a very Catholic background (raised atheist, converted at 15) as my mom did made it difficult for her to talk about sex. There’s definitely an attitude that anything besides PIV between a married man and woman for the purpose of reproduction is dirty, if not outright sinful. I remember being 13 and reading in the official Catholic Catechism that masturbation was a sin. I felt very conflicted and guilty about my solo activities for a year or so later. (Not guilty enough to confess it to my priest, though. I was committing the sin of lust, not stupidity.) I eventually de-converted from Catholicism due to this sexual repression and other nonsense.

  24. Dani says

    Jennifer Kesler:
    I’m getting the pained feeling I’m one of a small minority of people in this thread who had the benefit of a parent telling them the mechanics of sex. Is that right?

    The really strange thing is, I’ve noticed anecdotally among friends and acquaintences that most of the women I know who started having sex later than average age had a trusted adult at home who taught them about sex and was open to questions as they got older. I also know women in that situation who started around the average age… but a lot of the women I know who started earlier had no clue what they were getting into, and experience was the only way they were going to find out. I’d love to see a study done on this, because I have a feeling ignorance pushes girls to experiment with sex. What I learned about sex gave me a healthy perspective on it – it wasn’t the mysterious solution to all life’s problems, it was a bodily function that came with potential side effects ranging from life-enhancing wondrousness to death. Kind of like a car – it could mean freedom, and it could kill you… it was all in knowing what you were doing with it.

    That’s a great analogy.

    My mom sat me down and had “the talk” (the emotional side as well as how things worked) when I was a kid; I remember her giving me a book about it too. I was a bit shy about it at first, and didn’t ask many questions at first, but she was open to the ones I did eventually ask. It was generally framed in an “abstinence is better” context, but it was always made clear that, if I didn’t abstain, it wouldn’t be the end of the world or an unforgivable sin that got me kicked out of the house or anything.

  25. Patrick McGraw says

    My sister turned down my offer to give “the talk” to my nephews. I think it had something to do with the charts explaining meiosis, Mendelian genetics, and the process of embryogenesis. And the fact that I wanted to include a written test at the end, so they had better take notes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *