Little is known about reproductive cancer risks among cisgender lesbian and bisexual women. Cancer registries generally don’t ask about sexual orientation. Studies suggest so far that lesbian and bisexual women are less likely to get a pelvic exam and pap smear when it’s recommended. Pap smears help to detect cancer in its earlier, most easily treated and cured stages. Logically, lesbian and bisexual women may be at risk for having more developed (and potentially incurable) cancers. The data confirming that aren’t in yet, but it seems likely.
And now we have HPV vaccines. The human papilloma virus is a major cause of cervical cancer, along with anal cancer, penile cancer, and mouth/throat cancers. Human papilloma virus spreads by skin-to-skin sexual contact regardless of biological sex or gender. Along with pap smears, the HPV vaccine has been a great tool for preventing advanced cervical cancers.
This week I looked at a study of survey data from 15-25 year old women from the National Survey of Family Growth, from 2006-2010. They asked the questions: “Have you heard of the HPV vaccine?” and “Have you received the HPV vaccine?”
The results were rather spectacular. Lesbian, bisexual, and straight women had heard of the HPV vaccine. There was no difference there. However, 28% of straight women, 33% of bisexual women and 8.5% of lesbian women received the HPV vaccine.
That’s 8.5% of lesbians vs 28-33% of non-lesbian women.
Why?? Lesbians are at risk for HPV infection too!
Before looking at what the authors thought, I have some thoughts of my own.
2006, the earliest year this study had data on, isn’t too far off from when I graduated high school. I remember the sex ed class we had. We were lucky to have sex ed at all. It was a one-day class focused on the effectiveness of birth control options, how to put a condom on a banana (or maybe it was a cucumber?), and sexually transmitted diseases that can be passed between men and women in penis-in-vagina sex. There was no discussion of sexually transmitted diseases that are passed between men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women. I remember walking out of the class feeling confused and alone — what STDs were passable between women, and how can women protect themselves and their partners? Were there diseases that women could spread? Was protection warranted? I had no idea.
The study authors discuss similar problems and attributed the difference between lesbian HPV vaccine and bisexual/heterosexual HPV vaccine to misinformation. The idea that lesbian women who have never had sexual contact with men don’t need pap smears or HPV vaccines is old and incorrect, but still persists. I remember when pap smears were recommended starting at first sexual contact with men — if a woman never had sexual contact with a man then she didn’t ever need a pap, right? Wrong!
But it takes time to correct misinformation. As the authors correctly point out, important changes have happened since 2010. HPV vaccine is now recommended for all young people regardless of sex, sexual activity, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It’s not just a vaccine for a sexually transmitted disease — it’s a vaccine against some forms of cancer. Pap smears are now recommended for everyone with a cervix every 3-5 years or so.
So can you be part of the change? Help spread the word about HPV vaccine for *all* people, and pap smears for people cervixes!