As demonstrated by the national conversation sparked by actress Angelina Jolie’s disclosure about the steps she took to mitigate her breast cancer risk, public figures can help raise awareness about important health issues by speaking frankly about their own experiences. But Douglas’ announcement likely didn’t help move the conversation forward in that way (particularly since he also joked that cunnilingus is the best cure for HPV). The actor didn’t use his platform to further explain the link between HPV and cancer, or point to the effective prevention methods that can stop the spread of this particular type of STD.
Even though it’s not effective for adults Douglas’ age, the HPV vaccine — commonly known as Gardasil — is an important part of the conversation about STDs, cancer, and sexual health. Gardasil is extremely effective at protecting young people from contracting the virus, particularly if young children first begin receiving dosages at the age of 11. That’s why government health officials recommend that all girls and boys should receive their Gardasil shots while they’re teenagers. But Americans aren’t following that advice.
Cancers related to HPV have been on the rise in the U.S. over the past two years. Public health officials explain that’s a direct result of too few American youth getting vaccinated — just 30 percent of U.S. women receive one or more dosages of the HPV vaccine, which is administered over three doses. Even though study after study has confirmed that the HPV vaccine is safe for young Americans, parents remain resistant to giving their children their recommended HPV shots. That’s largely because the vaccine has been politically contentious over the past several years. Far-right figures like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) have peddled conspiracy theories that Gardasil could lead to mental retardation, or encourage young girls to become wildly promiscuous.
While it’s certainly true that oral sex can lead to HPV-related cancers, a representative for the actor told CNN that Douglas didn’t mean to imply that cunnilingus was the sole contributor to his cancer diagnosis. According to Douglas’ spokesperson, he meant only that sexual activity was “one of many possible causes.” But headlines about oral sex and throat cancer have already spread throughout the mainstream media.
The continued controversy over the HPV vaccine is yet another example of many Americans’ discomfort with teen sexuality. Rather than ensuring that adolescents receive preventative health resources to help safeguard them in their future years, many socially conservative Americans are too uncomfortable to effectively equip youth with the sexual health tools they need. But — regardless of Douglas’ prominent statement — expressions of sexuality aren’t necessarily as much to blame as our continued failure to protect kids is, particularly since the means to do so are readily available to us.