This Week in Sex: RIP Virginia Johnson, HPV Rates Stall, and Smoking During Pregnancy Worse Than Thought


This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Sex Researcher Virginia Johnson Dies

Virginia Johnson, best known as half of the sex research team Masters and Johnson, died Thursday at the age of 88. Johnson became a household name in 1966 when she and her partner, gynecologist William Masters, published Human Sexual Response. The book, considered groundbreaking in the field of sex research, presented the results of laboratory studies of men and women actively engaging in sexual behavior either together or alone. Using their observations, the authors described the sexual response cycle in both genders as having four stages: excitement (in which the penis and clitoris become erect and the vagina lubricates), plateau (in which individuals maintain a stable level of arousal), orgasm (in which individuals experience a rush of pleasurable sensations), and resolution (in which the body returns to its unexcited state). They also argued that Freud’s theory of vaginal orgasms being superior to clitoral orgasms was false, saying, essentially, “An orgasm is an orgasm.”

Though she became a researcher and sex therapist in her own right, Johnson joined Masters in 1957 as his administrative assistant after having been a country singer and a newspaper writer. At the time, Johnson had also been married and divorced three times and was the mother of two small children.

Masters and Johnson went on to work together for over 35 years, during which they ran the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation in St. Louis (which was later named after them) and wrote more than five additional books. Though they are pioneers in the field of sex research, they have received a fair share of criticism over the years. Some researchers have argued that what they observed in a laboratory setting was not necessarily what happens in bedrooms across the United States. Moreover, their 1988 book about AIDS, Crisis: Heterosexual Behavior in the Age of AIDS, which was not peer reviewed, included some glaring inaccuracies about the disease, such as the assertion that it could be transmitted by eating food prepared by an infected restaurant worker.

The pair married in 1971 and divorced amicably in 1993. Their relationship and work was the subject of a 2010 book, Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex, which has been turned into a series for Showtime, premiering this fall.

HPV Vaccination Rates Stall

Earlier this week, RH Reality Check reported on two new studies representing good news and bad news about human papillomavirus (HPV). First, researchers concluded that certain strains of HPV cause about one-third of cancers of the neck and throat. On the flip side, another study found that one of the available vaccines designed to prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer can also prevent these cancers of the neck and throat. Unfortunately, now news has come out that there was a slowdown in the number of vaccines given in 2012.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released an article this week showing that HPV vaccination had increased over the first five years the vaccine was available, and that by 2011, 53 percent of girls had gotten at least one dose. In 2012, however, that number barely budged, with only 53.8 percent of girls having received the shot. According to USA Today, CDC Director Tom Frieden told reporters in a telephone briefing on Thursday that this is very disappointing news. “Coverage for girls getting this anti-cancer vaccine has not increased at all from one year to the next. Zero,” said Frieden. “We’re dropping the ball. We’re missing opportunities to give the HPV vaccine. That needs to change to protect girls from cervical cancer.”

The CDC recommends that girls receive the three-dose vaccination as part of their regular preventative care beginning at age 11. The goal is to make sure that all young women are protected from HPV before they become sexually active. This is clearly not happening. According to the paper, if every girl 11 and up who saw a health-care worker since 2007 had been encouraged to get the HPV vaccine, coverage could have reached 92 percent.

A study earlier this year suggested that some parents still fear that the HPV vaccine will encourage sexual activity in young people. Frieden pointed out that this is not the case, saying simply, “HPV vaccine does not open the door to sex. HPV vaccine closes the door to cancer.”

Parents also have been swayed by false reports of the vaccine being unsafe. The truth is that the vaccine is quite safe. More than 56 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been distributed since 2006, and only 21,194 adverse events have been reported. Most of these are limited to pain at the site of the shot, redness, and swelling. As Frieden put it, “We’ve been doing a systematic review of medical records in managed care systems for any adverse events that occur after vaccination with the HPV vaccine and we haven’t seen anything other than fainting.”

Fainting is not uncommon after any vaccine, especially for adolescents.

HPV is very common, with about 79 million Americans becoming infected each year. Moreover, about 17,400 women in the United States get cancer caused by the virus—cervical cancer being the most common type. And about 8,800 men get cancers of the neck, throat, and penis from HPV.

Smoking During Pregnancy May Lead to “Conduct Disorders” in Kids

There is a picture in one of the old photo albums on my parents’ bookshelf of my mother visibly pregnant with my sister unabashedly smoking a cigarette at a party. It was 1970; no one had told her or anyone else that it was a bad idea. By the time she got pregnant with me two years later, doctors were recommending that women quit smoking at least for those all-important nine months. In the decades since, it has become clear that smoking during pregnancy can lead to a host of problems, including miscarriage, placental abruption (when the placenta separates from the uterus too early), premature babies, babies with low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, and certain birth defects, such as cleft palates. New research, published in JAMA Psychiatry, now adds behavior problems to the list of health issues smoking during pregnancy can cause.

Researchers looked at data from three studies of parents and children: one that includes biological and adopted children, one that includes children adopted at birth, and a third that includes children who are “adopted at conception” and are raised either by parents who are genetically related to them or ones who are not.

Mothers were asked if they smoked during pregnancy and how many cigarettes they smoked per day. The researchers then asked both parents and teachers about any behavioral problems the children displayed between the ages of 4 and 10. Children were given a behavior score based on these reports with 100 being the average. The researchers determined that children born to biological mothers who did not smoke scored 99 on average, while those born to mothers who smoked ten or more cigarettes per day scored 104 on average. These results did not change based on whether a child was raised by the birth mother or not, suggesting the issues are biological rather than social.

Theodore A. Slotkin, a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, published an editorial that accompanied the study. He writes, “Thus, the conclusion is incontrovertible: Prenatal tobacco smoke exposure contributes significantly to subsequent conduct disorder in the offspring.”

Of course, if I try to hold this over my sister in any way, she will undoubtedly point out that mom’s doctors ordered her to have a glass of vodka every day to “quiet the baby” during the last six weeks of her pregnancy with me. But that’s for another article.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Martha Kempner on Twitter: @MarthaKempner

To schedule an interview with Martha Kempner please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.