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The End of Oral Sex?

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In the wake of Michael Douglas’ revelation (and subsequent hasty PR spinnning) of his doctors’ suspicion that cunnilingus-spread HPV may have caused his throat cancer, many questions have arisen. Specifically: Seriously?! And: Does this mean men are going to cry cancer to avoid giving us, in Aretha Franklin’s immortal words, our “propers?”

HPV has largely been thought of as a female problem—with men able to carry and spread the disease but largely asymptomatic, while women are subjected to uncomfortable tests and LEEP procedures to remove abnormal cells on the cervix, as well as confusion about whether HPV is an actual STD. (Genital warts are not caused by the strains of HPV that can lead to cancer, in case you’re wondering.)

Enter the specter of HPV-related throat cancer. More people than ever before are getting diagnosed with HPV oropharyngeal cancers, though men are the predominant sufferers (9356 male cases every year, 2370 female, according to CDC stats concerning data between 2004-2008). In fact, the portion of throat cancers related to HPV as opposed to causes such as smoking has been rising steadily, about 10 percent a year, according to Maura Gillison, M.D., Ph.D., a professor at Ohio State University who studies HPV infections in the head, throat, and neck.

So, what does this mean for you? Is this a disease you need to tell you partner about? Is your boyfriend going to contract oral cancer from giving you oral sex if you have HPV? Will female condom sales go through the roof? We had so many questions, we called on not one, but two experts: Alan Waxman, MD, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and Robert Haddad, M.D., a specialist in head and neck oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. 

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