Listen Up Black Women and Queer Folk: We’re Not Invincible to STDs

Salt n Pepa's album with them on the cover saying "let's talk about sex!"

Being the queerio I am, I have this pass time of regularly Googling queer sex related topics in the news for fun. Hey, who knows, maybe there’s some new sex toy I need to learn about #possibleTMI. Well this time, I stumbled across some less-than-awesome news: black women are less likely to get HPV Vaccines than other demographics. According to new research, only 18 percent of black women from 18 to 24  have gotten the vaccine, as opposed to over 30 percent of white women.

“Given that cervical cancer is more common and associated with higher mortality in African-American and Hispanic women than in white women, it is especially important to understand the barriers to HPV vaccination for these populations,” found the survey of 2,200 women nationally

Black women, as I’ll further explain, have a history of doing less when it comes to sex protection. So in the words of the ever-dope Salt-n-Pepa:  Let’s talk about sex, people.

As a black person from the conservative south, I understand that it’s not really a big thing in black culture to discuss sex. In high school, I remember discussing with a few female friends, all black, the ever-awkward “talk” parents give. You know, “the talk.” I was stunned to find my mother was the only one out of all my friends to have given me some version of the talk when I turned ten. Though my mother’s awkward ramble was totally hetero-centric (as I was not out and proud at the mere age of ten), I’m so thankful today that she even went there for me, as I learned not a lot of parents do. I’ve noticed as I grow older that no matter how liberal sexually a black woman is, it is more respectable and acceptable to keep our thoughts on sex to ourselves. In a poignant Bitch article, Tamara Winfrey Harris further discussed the active silence black women practice when it comes to the subject of sex: “Respectability politics work to counter negative views of blackness by aggressively adopting the manners and morality that the dominant culture deems ‘respectable.’”

Acting overly prudish whether we (black women) actually are or not, is meant to work as a neutralizer for us when compared to non-black women, as we are already attached to so many other negative stereotypes. But I must ask, is it really beneficial? I think not, because it hurts us as black women on a fundamental health level, as you can see from the statistics: Chlamydia rates that are more than seven times higher for black women than other women and Syphillis rates are 21 times higher.

While a lot of factors play into the spread of STD, willingness to talk about the issues certainly plays a role. People get a lot of their sex-ed from talking to friends and family—if we’re not honest with each other, it will hurt us in the end.

However, the avoidance of sex-ed talk doesn’t just go for black folks.  Queers in general seem to have this air about us that implies some sort of magical STIs shield, more so than straight folks. I say this from a completely personal perspective, given my experience in queer relationships and conversations with close friends. It is as if we feel that since we’re having straight sex, we’re safe. That is why it’s important to broaden our understandings of what sex actually is, so that we stay protected in all sexual situations. Especially when it has been shown that lesbians (of all colors) are far more likely to develop cervical cancers than heterosexual women and gay and bisexual men are about 17 times more likely to develop anal cancer than men who only have sex with women. Both of these types of cancer can be caused by HPV.

That’s why it’s important for queer folk to look into getting vaccinated against HPV, whichstands for Human Papillomavirus and it is the most common sexually transmitted infection of them all. To clarify, the HPV vaccine only protects against two out of the 40 different kinds of HPV. However, these two types are the most likely to cause cervical cancers down the road.  I must be honest, for the longest time I thought it was far more difficult for one to contract HPV in lesbian sex than in heterosexual sex. Sadly though, it turns out we can catch it just as easily, and in similar ways: genital-on-genital contact, touching partner’s genitals then our own, or sharing unclean toys.

chart showing that the HPV vaccine protects against cancers

HPV vaccine information chart via Information is Beautiful.

Full disclosure, I hate all doctor’s visits, let alone doctors that have total VIP access to my hoo-ha. There’s nothing sexy about it. I especially don’t like having to wonder whether my doctor is LGBT-friendly, because if they’re not, the whole experience can be quite traumatizing. Who wants discrimination while simply trying to be healthy? Well, I come to you with great news: The Human Rights Campaign has created an annual Healthcare Equality Index in which hundreds of gay-friendly hospitals and clinics make themselves known. Also, many LGBT centers all over the country offer or support companies that offer free and low-cost HIV testing specifically for our community on a regular basis. 

Consider all those times you had sex and protection didn’t once cross your mind. Mhmm. It happens. But the fact is, HPV should cross your mind. I agree, depending on what you’re into, it can be harder to protect against STIs as a vagatarian. But in the long run, caution is really the best way to go. I’m not saying we all need to run out and get that HPV vaccine like, now, as there are precautions and arguments against it and it’s a choice everyone should make on their own. The real concern I’m raising here is the overarching need for women and queers of color to do so much more when it comes to talking with each other about sex education and protection. As much as I like to think of us queerios as some sort of superhuman species within ourselves, we must accept the fact that no one is invincible.

This is an edited version of an article that Jas Joyner originally published on her blog, And Another Thing.

by Jas Joyner
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

Sexism and racism in the medical institution

It's worth adding that doctors also play a role in the vaccination disparity when they don't encourage black or queer women to get vaccinated the same way that they encourage white straight women. There's a lot of unacknowledged sexism and racism wrapped up in ideas surrounding HPV vaccination, namely which bodies are worth keeping healthy for the purposes of fertility and reproduction.

Price issues

In addition, the shot is expensive, and black women are more likely to come from low socio-economic backgrounds. I know for myself, I only got the first set of shots (on a brief moment with healthcare coverage), and not the other two because they were 150 dollars each.

Actually, it turns out that

Actually, it turns out that the available HPV vaccine rarely works to prevent strains of HPV which commonly infect black women, because the studies conducted when the vaccine was developed were biased and largely based on samples and data collected from white participants. So you know, fuck this planet.

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