This week Michael Douglas’ announced that his oral cancer was caused by a virus (human papillomavirus) likely transmitted through oral sex.  Media coverage, however, has been conflating the virus and the sexual activity with headlines like this:

ABC News:

1

FOX News:

2

San Francisco Chronicle:

3

The day after the story broke, Douglas’ representatives clarified that his cancer wasn’t caused by cunnilingus, but by the virus itself.

This is an interesting example of the way that a practice can be falsely conflated with a disease.  It brings back the fantastical stories of the 1800s that masturbation was the cause of  liver, kidney, and lung disease; arthritis; headache, memory loss, epilepsy, and neurological problems; back pain; impotence; cancer; and death.

Like masturbation was (and maybe still is), cunnilingus is taboo enough that it can be made into the villain in a story about cancer.  Imagine, as a counterfactual, a headline that said that syphilis was caused by sexual intercourse.  This is clearly wrong.  We all know that syphilis is transmitted by unprotected sexual intercourse.  As Douglas’ confession reveals, and the data demands, it’s about time we were as comfortable talking about the risks and rewards of cunnilingus.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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