Archive for March 6th, 2011

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. –  H.L. Mencken

Moralists are never afraid to pronounce that all manner of social ills and personal problems derive from sex (though many of them are magically rendered harmless through a spell cast by a priest after purchasing a sacred scroll from the Holy State).  But there is another, much larger group we might call crypto-moralists; they avoid words like “sin” and eschew religious rhetoric, and may not recognize their own moralism even if confronted with it.  Such people are always (perhaps unconsciously) looking for ways to prove that vices really are objectively “bad”; they delight in cirrhosis and emphysema, secretly love syphilis and AIDS and pore over each new “discovery” about the deleterious health effects of good-tasting foods with the same rapt attention as a normal person might read a letter from his accountant informing him that his taxes had decreased.  And when they encounter some connection between an illness and a sexual activity they can’t resist slanting the story to blame the activity rather than the lack of prophylactic measures, which is rather like blaming a person’s choking on the type of food consumed rather than on his eating it too quickly.

These are the sorts of thoughts which passed unbidden through my mind when I recently read this article from USA Today which essentially claims that blow jobs cause cancer:

There’s a worrisome uptick in the incidence of certain head and neck cancers among middle-aged and even younger Americans, and some experts link the trend to a rise in the popularity of oral sex over the past few decades.  That’s because the human papillomavirus (HPV) is a major trigger for these cancers, and HPV can be transmitted through this type of sexual activity.  “It seems like a pretty good link that more sexual activity, particularly oral sex, is associated with increased HPV infection,” said Dr. Greg Hartig…[of] the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine…

According to Dr. William Lydiatt…of…the University of Nebraska Medical Center…the overall incidence of head and neck cancers is going down, largely because fewer people are smoking…but the incidence of cancers of the tonsil and base of the tongue have been going up over the past decades…and those are the ones that are more likely to test positive for HPV.  “It’s gotten to the point now where 60 to 70% of all tonsil cancers in the U.S. are HPV-related,” Lydiatt said.

Although the link between HPV and these types of cancers is indisputable, the association with oral sex is strong but a little more speculative…A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that younger people with head and neck cancers who tested positive for oral HPV infection were more likely to have had multiple vaginal and oral sex partners in their lifetime.  In the study, having six or more oral sex partners over a lifetime was associated with a 3.4 times higher risk for [these]…cancers…having 26 or more vaginal-sex partners tripled the risk…cancers of the tonsil and base of the tongue have been increasing every year since 1973, and…”widespread oral sex practices among adolescents may be a contributing factor in this increase.”

Because, you know, it couldn’t have anything at all to do with “virginity pledges” which increase the chance teens will engage in oral sex without looking for signs of STDs or using condoms because those topics aren’t covered in their “abstinence-only sex education”.  And it certainly couldn’t be blamed on the fact that a vaccine for HPV has been out for years, but parents aren’t letting their daughters receive it because only “bad girls” need to prevent venereal diseases (which is also why the STD rate is five times as high among university students as among streetwalkers).

…So does the increase in incidence mean that recent generations are having more sex than their grandparents?  “The general consensus on the street is that because people’s (sexual) practices have changed over time, we’re seeing an increase in these cancers,” said Hartig.  “I don’t know why they’re having more oral sex (but) the concept of having oral sex is something that seems less obscure to you than it did to your parents or grandparents.”

“The thought would be that the baby boomers — the ’60s and early ’70s generation — probably had more freedom in sexual relationships in general, including oral sex,” added Dr. Bert W. O’Malley Jr…[of] the University of Pennsylvania.  And at least in terms of oral sex, that appears true for those younger than boomers.  The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that, in 2002, some 90% of males and 88% of females aged 25 to 44 reported ever having oral sex…comparable figures from 1992 showed that about three-quarters of men aged 20 to 39 and closer to 70% of women aged 18 to 59 having ever given or received oral sex.

Why does every generation want to believe it invented sex?  Anybody who thinks that oral sex was “obscure” to his parents and grandparents is living in a fantasy world.  If your grandmother was upper-class and educated at a private all-girl school it was almost certainly obscure to her, but you can bet your grandfather knew about it.  And if your grandmother was working class or middle class and/or attended public school, especially a coed public school, so did she.  Suffering Sappho, some of my generation’s grandparents were in high school or university during the “Roaring Twenties”; if you believe they were less aware of oral sex than you are, you need to read more about that era.

But if the rate at which teenagers engage in it has really increased since 1992, doesn’t that mean something?  Sure it does; good ol’ “abstinence only sex education” started in 1992 and really took off in 1996.  But obviously preaching abstinence and denying information on birth control can’t possibly be the cause, so let’s blame…the internet!  Yeah, that must be it!  The internet causes oral sex, which causes cancer, therefore the internet causes cancer.  Q.E.D.

The silver lining is that the HPV-related head and neck cancers are eminently more treatable than those attributable to smoking or drinking, even though they tend to be diagnosed at a later stage…about 85% of non-smoking people with HPV-positive tumors survive…and tongue and tonsil cancers remain relatively rare in the United States.  The other good news — at least for the younger set — is that there is a relatively new vaccine to prevent against HPV infection.  It’s not going to help those who are already infected, but it…could help those who aren’t yet infected with the ubiquitous virus.

Of course, the part about how even with the “uptick” this type of cancer is both rare and highly treatable, and especially the part about it being preventable, has to wait for the very end of the article.  After all, we wouldn’t want to do anything that might interfere with our attempt to blame teen sex for a cancer epidemic that doesn’t actually exist.

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