As a life-long feminist, I’m a sucker for any article or book whose headline or title highlights a comparison between females and males. I read such works with anticipation, interest and a suspicious eye for sexism. (Can’t help it, it runs through my veins.) So, it’s natural that a November 7, 2011 NPR article entitled “Why HPV Vaccination of Boys May Be Easier” would prick my curiosity…and boil my blood.
The premise of the article, of course, is public health. The average person who knows something about HPV, the article suggests, typically links the virus cervical cancer, and therefore females only. (Hence the reason for advertising the HPV vaccine as for young females when it was publicly released in the US in 2006.) The truth is that HPV is a disease that is transmitted sexually and via skin-to-skin contact; and it affects both males and females and causes other types of ailments and cancer as well. As an agent of public health, the HPV vaccine is available to both females and males. However, as the title clearly states, males might just be “easier” to vaccinate, and the reason is not because females in general are squeamish about needles.
To cut to the chase, the logic boils down to sexual activity and who by society’s reckoning is allowed to engage in it. “There’s been a surprisingly muted reaction [to immunizing boys against HPV vis-a-vis immunizing girls],” says Dr. Don Dizon, a Brown University oncologist. “We tend to believe that girls are chaste and are going to ‘save themselves for marriage.’ But, you know, sexual activity is something that’s almost expected of boys.” Thanks, Doc….for nothing.
I wish I could say that I’m shocked that “we” still “believe” this archaic boys-will-be-promiscuous, girls-must-be-chaste sexual more, but I’m not. Any fly on the wall on a school bus or in a locker room, dressing room, break room or family room with a television need not linger long to gather the commonality of this social perspective. I am, though, outraged that we continue to allow such patriarchal thinking and behavior to dehumanize both our sons and our daughters, and consequently disconnect them from their own bodies.
Why do we not expect more from our sons? Why is their chastity not a treasure to preserve for their spouse? When we assume that “boys will be boys” and give them up to (more often than not unprotected) fornication, we reduce them to creatures controlled by their instincts and relieve them of personal responsibility. We are telling our boys that this hyper hormonal drive within them is something that must be satisfied, else it will over take them. We tell them how powerful their bodies are (which is true) without teaching about the rest of that which encompasses their being and the ever-important balancing of it all for a life of wholeness. As a result, our sons lose sight of their God-given gifts of reason that separates humanity from the animal kingdom; of the soul that makes each person beautiful and unique in the sight of God and humanity; and of love and relationships that respect and connect people with or without physical contact.
Why do we expect too much of our daughters? For millenia girls and women have been mercilessly subjected to what is known in theological circles as the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Simply stated, in relation to their personal and societal worth, females have option of inhabiting one of two positions — pure and saintly or a seductive sex monger, Mary the mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene, reputed “lady of the night” — with nothing in between. All society has to do to keep a girl or woman in line is remind her what people say about and what happens to “those kind” of females.
Amongst other problems, this creates a perfectionism that is so insidious that it seeps into every cell of a female’s body. The slightest whisper of impropriety (truth being irrelevant) has the power to push a female across the wrong side of the line in others’ minds. And poof! Just like that, she’s dating-but-not-marrying material. Out of terror ranging from mild to neurotic, a female will over-scrutinize everything about herself and other girls and women around her. Moreover, she will come to fear if not loathe the natural occurences within her own body. She, too, has an innate sexual drive. But, while males’ raging drive cannot but be satisfied, hers is to be denied, ignored or (better yet) completely suppressed. Else, her only employment opportunity would be for Heidi Fleiss. As a result, females dehumanize themselves as they seek to undermine what is merely carnal; and they separate themselves from their own bodies and one from each other out of self-loathing. They lose sight of themselves as embodied bearers of God’s image who are precious not because they are pure, but because they are alive.
There is a conversation more foundational than sexist attitudes surrounding the HPV vaccine and sexual activity that neither this article nor most of us are having, and that is the inherent and inestimable value of each human life. Body, mind and soul are mystically combined to create beings (each unique to her or himself) whose wondrous complexity have yet to be explained by scientist or theologian. Therein lies great beauty, female and male alike, and when sex becomes part of the circumstance or conversation the whole being is affected. Perhaps if we begin here in discussions with our young people, it will not be as easy to dismiss the sexual nature and activity of our sons or demonize the same of our daughters. Our public health, at the very least, may depend upon it.