To recap: After Michele Bachmann made ridiculous and patently false claims about the HPV vaccine in an effort to score political points against Rick Perry, writer Ayelet Waldman, wife of novelist Michael Chabon, took to Twitter to say that she’d gotten HPV from her husband and remind all those sex-panicked conservatives why exactly the HPV vaccine is important. The news that a woman had HPV and is willing to say so on Twitter was somehow deemed news-worthy. And folks on Twitter responded with, in Jill’s summary, “OMG TMI BE A LADY YOU’RE BEING PUNISHED FOR BEING SUCH A SLUT SO BE QUIET ABOUT IT.”
I couldn’t dream up a better illustration of the amazing heights of sex-negativity in our culture. The ultra-conservative responses that basically claim that sex between “monogamous, faithful, virgins” is the only “moral” kind are, of course, outrageous. But that’s so totally out-of-touch with the vast majority of premarital-sex-having Americans, that they could be easily dismissed–if they didn’t exert such a powerful influence on the mainstream conservative movement these days. But it’s the less overtly judgmental but just as damaging exclamations of “TMI!” that are so revealing.
Because the only reason there’s any such reaction is that HPV is sexually transmitted. The. Only. Reason. The simple fact, implied there in a woman’s statement that she’s had HPV, that sex must have been had is enough to set off a chorus of “ewwws.” That is absurd. And it’s especially absurd considering that HPV is one of the most common viruses in the United States. At least 50% of sexually active people get it at some point. By the age of 50, at least 80% of women will have had HPV. In Amanda Marcotte’s words, “saying ‘I’ve had HPV’ is basically saying, ‘I’ve had sex.’ It’s that common.” It’s like the flu, but a flu you get from boning. Which is, of course, the whole problem. Because, apparently, we are a nation of 6th graders who think the abstract idea of two people having sex is too gross for Twitter. (And that comparison is insulting to 6th graders.)
There are very real consequences to that deep discomfort with talking openly about sex. As I’ve said before, sex-negativity is detrimental to your health. Which brings us back to the HPV vaccine – an issue that folks like Bachmann are able to exploit because the stigma around STDs means we don’t want to talk about it on a personal level. But we should. Because HPV is usually very benign, except when it isn’t – and then it can cause cervical cancer. In 2011, more than 12,000 women in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with cervical cancer and more than 4,000 are expected to die from it. That’s why, contrary to Michele Bachmann, getting the vaccine is a pretty good idea.
The Village Voice has declared tomorrow, Friday, September 16, “Tweet that You Have (or Had) HPV Day.” I think that’s a wonderful idea and I hope everyone will take part.
Update: The hashtag for tomorrow has been decided: #hpvday