October 28, 2012
Campaigning for Women’s Health
With so much of the campaign focused on women’s health, and the assumption that support for Planned Parenthood translates into support for women, it’s worth taking a look at what PP teaches girls about sexual behavior.
Consider the following:
- A You-Tube video with Dr Vanessa Cullins, VP of Medical Affairs at PP: “Expect to have HPV once you become sexually intimate,” she says. “All of us get it.”
- A girl who’s wondering if she’s “ready” for sex is told on PP’s website: only you can figure that out. She’s instructed to consider her values, and her feelings “about the kinds of emotional and physical risks [she’s] willing to take”.
- Parents, have you heard of “rainbow parties”? If not I suggest you find out.
Dr Cullins is referring to a sexually transmitted infection called the human papilloma virus. HPV causes genital warts, pre-cancerous cells on the cervix, and rarely cervical cancer. Guys are usually silent carriers; it’s more often girls who need biopsies and painful treatments.
Dr Cullins, an Ob/Gyn, is telling girls they’re going to get this virus, no matter what. There’s nothing they can do to avoid it, short of lifelong celibacy.
So, she urges them, make sure you get vaccinated and go in for regular PAP tests.
While there is a place for the vaccine and for PAP tests, Dr Cullins’ essential message is not true. The risk of getting HPV can be significantly decreased. Many succeed in avoiding it altogether, without a vaccine.
Two people who delay sexual behavior, and then stay in a monogamous relationship, avoid HPV. From a health perspective, that’s the ideal. Not easy, of course, but neither is eating right, getting lots of exercise, avoiding the sun, etc.
Physicians present ideals to patients, telling them: the closer you can get to that ideal, the better.
It seems that PP believes there’s a new normal: intimacy = infection.
This is cause for alarm. The approach isn’t medically accurate, and it certainly doesn’t protect young women from disease.
But early sexual debut places a girl’s health and wellbeing at risk. That’s not up for debate.
Missing from PP’s advice is strong encouragement to “just say no”, for health reasons. Also missing is the fact that teen girls are highly vulnerable to STDs because their cervix is immature, and that girls are much more likely to pay a high price for teen sex than boys.
Why doesn’t PP flat out tell girls they should delay sex? It’s a fair question to ask of an organization whose first priority is women’s reproductive health.
Here’s another way PP fails to protect young women. 20% of ninth grade girls report they’ve engaged in oral sex, but nowhere does PP tell the whole story about how dangerous that can be.
We’ve known for years that oral sex is associated with throat cancer. It’s probably due to the transfer of genital HPV to the mouth.
There are lots more examples that I’ve discussed in my books and elsewhere. Suffice it to say, those who assume that PP always stands for women’s health need to examine the matter closely. I think they’ll be surprised at what they discover.