To date, the only clear literature linking sex and cancer is that concerning the human papillomavirus. There are over 200 strains of HPV, but some are more cancer-causing than others. The good news is that we now have a vaccine against the most common cancer-causing strains of the virus.
Most commonly, HPV is linked to cervical cancer. But both men and women can increase their risk of developing cancer through sexual activities that pass on the virus.
A lot has been written about HPV and cervical cancer. So much, in fact, that most people don’t even realize men can also get HPV, and that they can get HPV-related cancers too. Indeed, men have largely been ignored in the media and promotion of the HPV vaccine.
Boys have been included in the Australian school-based HPV vaccination program since 2013. But preliminary results of research with male adolescents and their parents suggest there’s low awareness and understanding about the vaccine.
Adolescent boys aren’t sure what the vaccine is for, nor why they need to get it; parents think their sons are not at risk of HPV-related cancers. But HPV can cause a range of cancers in both men and women, in sites other than the cervix. These include cancers of the anus and genitals, as well as cancers of the head, neck and throat.
Unfortunately, some interpretations of this news were incorrect, leading people to believe that oral sex could also “cure” cancer after Douglas also made that claim. In fact, the only “cure” in the case of HPV-related cancers is prevention.
Vaccination is the primary method of preventing HPV-related cancers. But as mentioned above, some parents still question why boys need the vaccine if girls are receiving it through the school-based program.
Among heterosexual couples, HPV is transmitted between males and females (either partner could be infected first and transmit it to the other). So, vaccinating women provides some benefits to men, but full protection of heterosexual men only occurs if most women receive the vaccine.
While the school-based program in Australia has reached quite high coverage of girls, it isn’t high enough to fully protect all heterosexual boys. What’s more, men who are vaccinated will help protect future partners who are not vaccinated.
The second reason is that adolescent boys who do or will eventually identify as bisexual or homosexual are not protected. It’s unrealistic, impractical, and stigmatizing to try to single out this population at the age of 12, when schoolchildren receive the HPV vaccine.
HPV is a real risk for developing cancer in both men and women, and it is transmitted through sex. But, reducing this cancer risk is easily done through vaccination. After HPV vaccination, the only real cancer worries are those not directly related to sexual behaviours.
So get vaccinated against HPV, eat your veggies, exercise, and watch out for those other carcinogens in your life. But you won’t have to worry about contracting cancer from your sexual partners.