Recent research out of Ohio State University shows that human papillomavirus (HPV) is the leading cause of mouth and throat cancers in the United States. A University of California study suggests that teens and young adults are more likely to engage in oral (and anal) sex, as opposed to vaginal sex. Put these two trends together, add a dash of the puritanical cultural imperative that keeps parents and educators from discussing sex --leastwise oral sex -- openly and you have a recipe for at the very least disservice, if not disaster.
Sociologically, the puritanical imperative informing the meta-culture makes sense. Those who initially came to this country were seeking religious freedom and based their society on the dictates of their faith, inextricably weaving a certain moral sensibility into the cultural context.
As the culture has evolved, this imperative has become more and more of a social obstacle because it disallows -- or, at the very least, deflects -- the open discussion of topics that demand open discussion. The passive protectionism that is the gold standard for many parents and most educators (or, at least, the systems that they serve) sets itself up to be the real gateway to a kid getting derailed -- not pot, or booze or porn on the internet -- at least not at the outset.
Interestingly, this imperative that prevents open discussion by caretakers can be seen as the very same imperative that in part drives the trend toward non-vaginal sexual activity. Many kids engage in oral and anal sex because they don't consider it "real sex". If you're not having "real sex", then you're not doing anything "bad" or "wrong", right? The illusion of upholding the implicit moral standard of the culture remains intact, but you still get to test your limits.
This propensity to ignore cultural trends for the sake of maintaining the illusion of moral propriety in light of the implications of the research detailing sexual trends among youth and the burgeoning epidemic of HPV-related oral cancers cobbles together the elements of a perfect storm. More than 80% of women will have an active papillomavirus at some point in their lives. There is an inverse relationship between age and HPV viral load (the younger you are, the more likely you are to have an active virus and vice versa). The largest increase in the demographic of mouth and throat cancers is in young, white males. There is an increasing trend among teenagers and youth to engage more in oral sex than in vaginal sex. Although we may not yet be able to draw a causal correlation among these elements, it doesn't take much to see a fairly clear confluence of factors.
Kids drink, they smoke (not cigarettes) and they have sex -- and we need to talk to them about it. Not to scold, punish or blame, but to inform, educate and raise awareness. Teenage -- and, increasingly, tweenage -- behavior is risky behavior, and kids are going to make the choices they make regardless. We aren't going to stop it with a few well placed words -- that's why D.A.R.E. doesn't work -- but we can shape it by recognizing and acknowledging the realities that surrounds us, then addressing those realities directly and honestly. Failing that recognition, we enable the potential consequences of the very thing that we are trying to avoid.
The take away here is that we, as caretakers, need to set aside our own fears, reservations and prejudices in service of the youth for whom we are supposed to be caring. We're supposed to know better, so what if we started acting like it?
© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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