As I was waiting for a friend at a Capitol Hill Starbucks, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop a bit on one animated man’s conversation near the store’s entrance. He was pacing angrily and thrusting his cappuccino like a dagger through the air. On more than one occasion, he nearly knocked an approaching Starbucks customer to the ground.
A lot of people looked at him curiously, wondering what had this red-faced man so riled up.
He was talking about eleven-year-old girls and STDs. Given that I live in Washington, D.C., this man could have been a Congressional staffer, campaign manager, spokesperson for some political organization, or even an elected representative. He could have just been a frustrated father. Regardless of his vocation and place in life, he was clearly ticked off, and, if you’ve been following any of the Presidential posturing over the past several weeks, you may have noticed that a lot of people are ticked off about little girls and STDs.
The conversation has centered on dueling opinions from Republican Presidential candidates regarding whether or not the government should mandate the HPV vaccine for 11 and 12-year-old girls, the age recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested that HPV causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer, genital warts and is linked with other types of cancers and diseases. While there are multiple strains of HPV, and not all of them directly cause cancer, cervical cancer is still the second leading cancer-killer of women worldwide. Sounds like pretty serious stuff, huh?
Several years ago, my own doctor approached me about getting the HPV vaccine. When I declined the vaccine, she became very agitated and stressed that the cutoff age for the vaccine was 26, and I only had one more year to “do my part to stop the spread of HPV”. As a young person intent on waiting until marriage to have sex, I felt morally conflicted. If I got the vaccine, would that imply I was sleeping around? What if I remained pure but my future husband didn’t have the same sexual background? What if I was raped by someone with HPV… would I get cervical cancer then?
It was a confusing enough mind game for me as an independent adult, much less for today’s parents as they try to sort through what the responsible, “Godly” response should be. Either way, all of this talk about the HPV vaccine has caused a lot of parents to think about the uncomfortable topic of their own child’s sexuality. And, from my perspective, at the root of all of these STDs is a whole lot of sexual brokenness and misinformation. There are about 6 million new cases of genital HPV in the U.S. every year, and it’s estimated that 74% of these cases occur in 15- to 24-year-olds. Apparently, in the U.S., an estimated 75% to 80% of males and females will be infected with HPV in their lifetime. Transmission of the virus can happen through any kind of genital contact with someone who has HPV—intercourse isn’t necessary, and many people who have HPV, don’t even know it, because the virus often has no signs of symptoms.
As parents, mentors and teachers, I hope that we can focus on more than the politics here and do our part to break the silence about sexual brokenness. We need to venture into that vast, awkward world of talking frankly about sex, STDs and sexual dysfunction with our children, since they the ones who will bear the social and economic cost of our hyper-sexualized world. Regardless of whether or not we come to terms with allowing our eleven and twelve-year-old girls to get the HPV vaccine, we have to come to terms with what we are going to do, broadly, to educate our kids about sex and healthy sexuality. We have to help our sons and daughters understand that, even if they get a vaccine that can help protect them from some types of STDs, sex outside of marriage still has consequences. We have to help our kids understand that the place for sexual exploration, not just for intercourse, is in marriage, and that every sexual action we take outside of marriage, from viewing pornography, to masturbation, to blowjobs and anal sex, has a cost.
We must combat the cultural myth that sexual experimentation is a necessary right of passage for our youth. We must initiate and look for teachable moments to talk about sex and reinforce our values with our kids. We have to protect them from pornography (using a filter can be a great start), set boundaries and set a strong example for them. We have to help our kids understand what healthy sexuality looks like, but to do this, we have to start the conversation today.