Can We Have A Grown-Up Conversation About HPV Yet?

Michele Bachmann's been all over the place making comically outrageous claims about the supposed dangers of the HPV vaccine.  Will her behavior shed light on the more serious problem of people having vague, unarticulated fears of the vaccine?

One thing guaranteed about presidential election season is that any issue that a major candidate chooses to raise, no matter how obscure beforehand, can suddenly rise to an issue of national importance.  Thus it has been with the HPV vaccine.  Ever since it’s come out, those of us in the trenches on reproductive health care have been trying to raise the alarm about right-wing opposition to the vaccine, which prevents transmission of harmful forms of Human Papilomavirus (HPV), thereby also preventing the possible development of genital warts and of cervical cancer, and all the various and unpleasant treatments women have to endure to make sure they don’t get cervical cancer, such as coloscopies  and LEEP procedures.  But because it prevents a disease you get through sexual contact, many on the Christian right oppose the vaccination.  They tend to mindlessly support anything—even deadly cancers—that can be perceived as divine justice for the very human act of having sex.

Before Michele Bachmann started yapping on national TV about the vaccine and claiming that it makes girls “retarded”, pervasive right wing opposition to the vaccine wasn’t deemed worthy of much mainstream media attention.  I suspect that it was seen as a fringe phenomenon, like the belief that fluoride in the drinking water is a mind control agent. In one sense, it is a fringe belief—there’s consensus amongst experts that this vaccine is a good thing.  But because the experts believe something doesn’t mean that nutty opinions in the public at large can’t have widespread negative effects.  Whisper campaigns against the HPV vaccines are a perfect example. Only a third of girls are getting all three shots, for instance.  Part of the problem is that it’s a hassle to get three shots, and part of the problem is that it’s expensive.  But the research has shown that as income levels rose past a certain point, vaccination rates declined slightly.  This probably reflects the fact that people on the somewhat wealthier end of the spectrum are more likely to be conservative, and therefore more likely to think it’s appropriate to use the fear of disease and death to control female sexuality.

Whisper campaigns work. Conservatives have been chugging away, insinuating in a person-to-person way that the vaccines cause sluttiness, retardation, and all sorts of sundry evils.  Since people tend to already have deep-set fears about female sexuality—especially when they’re forced to think about how their own little girls are going to turn into grown women who have sex—these rumors can do tremendous damage. Even liberals are holding off on vaccinating their girls because they heard “somewhere” that the vaccines are “untested” and “dangerous,” even though that’s simply not true in the slightest, something they could verify for themselves by consulting with the Centers for Disease Control.  If you hear that the vaccine is dangerous and untested, it’s wise to stop and think about where that idea is coming from, and that is basically people who think sex is so evil that they literally believe young women should face death as a possible consequence of having sex.

It took Michele Bachmann saying the sorts of things on TV that people have been saying in private for the story to get covered.  And really, when you hear with your own ears the clumsy fear-mongering around the vaccine, you start to see why it was so hard to cover the story before.  It’s simply that difficult to believe anyone would buy the legends that have been circulating about the vaccine, particularly the notion that a 12-year-old could get it and suddenly and without warning develop severe mental illnesses. 

What I don’t see happening, however, is what most needs to happen: a national dialogue on how irrational fears about sexuality, especially female sexuality, allow people to believe all sorts of nonsense about women’s bodies and sexual health.  I see this topic being avoided in no small part because a lot of otherwise rational people can get completely silly on this issue, and when called out for it, they get incredibly defensive.

After all, they’re not like those people, aka fundamentalist Christians who believe Satan speaks to kids on records and that you can go to hell for masturbating.  So they lock up and refuse to discuss how it is that they have a totally irrational fear of a vaccine that just so happens to prevent a common STI.  Mary Beth Williams’ reaction to being criticized because she had an irrational freak-out over her daughter accidentally being vaccinated against HPV instead of against meningitis is typical. Even though her original article regurgitated rumors and innuendo that have been spread through the public by right wingers with an anti-sex agenda, she simply couldn’t accept that was perhaps why she irrationally believed that the HPV vaccine was dangerous and untested, even though the information demonstrating that it’s safe and tested is easily available.  Being a rational person, she did eventually get her daughter vaccinated, but the insistence that this vaccine is somehow scarier and requires more hand-wringing, crying it out, and worrying about choice than any other vaccine on the market—which is simply administered, no questions asked—does have its roots in this right wing whisper campaign.  Rumors work because they prey on unconscious fears, and one of the biggest is our unconscious fears about female sexuality.

But the gawking and laughing at Michele Bachmann for being so clumsy about her attacks on the HPV vaccine might help.  Most people are more sophisticated in generating their irrational excuses for being worried about it, making vague insinuations that it wasn’t tested enough or there’s some unknown and undiscovered danger. By actually making claims about what she believed that danger to be, Bachmann showed how silly people’s fears really are.  Maybe going forward, more people who had these vague, unarticulated fears about the supposed dangers of preventing HPV transmission will cringe in shame at the possibility that they sound like Michele Bachmann, and will instead make the right choice to be more rational about this.