This Week in Sex: Chicago Pushes HPV Vaccine, a Study on Sex and Class, and Sex Ed for Seniors


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

Chicago Encourages HPV Vaccines

With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Chicago Department of Public Health is launching an initiative to encourage adolescents to get the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease (STD). The CDC estimates 79 million people in the United States are infected. Though most cases of HPV cause no health issues, certain strains can lead to cancer of the cervix, penis, vulva, anus, neck, and throat. The three-shot vaccination is recommended for boys and girls beginning at age 11 or 12, as it is best to get full protection before young people become sexually active.

As RH Reality Check has reported, some parents are reluctant to have their children vaccinated, in part because of a general distrust of vaccines and also because of misguided fears that vaccinating against an STD will encourage sexual behavior.

Chicago has a higher rate of HPV than other parts of the state, and a higher HPV vaccination rate as well. Still, only 38 percent of adolescent girls in the city have received the shots, and the state health department would like to see this increased.

The new initiative includes training for 200 health-care providers, a new patient reminder system, and a public education campaign aimed at teenagers and their parents.

Disturbing Findings About Socioeconomic Status and Sex

In recent weeks, a number of news outlets have used some version of the headline “Rich People Have Better Sex” to draw readers in. I admit, it worked on me. Unfortunately, the actual results of the survey in question are not as splashy as they are sad. Researchers at the University of Barcelona found that women of lower socioeconomic status are more stressed about sex, mostly because they were less likely to use contraception (probably because they were not able to access it) and more likely to be the victims of domestic violence.

Researchers in Spain conducted in-depth interviews with more than 4,600 men and women between the ages of 16 and 44. Participants were primarily asked about sexual satisfaction, safe sex, and sexual abuse. Researchers also asked about a number of other factors, including “age at first intercourse, reason for first intercourse, type of partner, level of education, country of origin, religiousness, parity, and social class.”

They found that, in general, Spain is a sexually healthy nation. Most participants were satisfied with their sex lives and practicing safer sex, and overall levels of sexual abuse were low. Still, they found disturbing differences. “Socioeconomically disadvantaged people tend to have less satisfactory and more unsafe sexual intercourse and suffer more sexual abuse,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers theorized, “More socioeconomically advantaged people have a greater awareness of their own needs and a greater ability to develop their sexuality and to plan pregnancy with a greater degree of control.”

As Emily Shire points out in her piece for the Daily Beast, “What this study really shows us is that sex is yet another way socioeconomic privilege can extend into every aspect of a person’s life. … But that, we should hope, can change. Enjoyable sex should be a luxury for everyone.”

New York Times Op-Ed Urges Safe Sex for Seniors

In a New York Times op-ed that ran last weekend, oncologist Ezekiel Emmanuel, who is also vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, notes the rise in sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and STD testing among older individuals. In 2011 and 2012, 2.2 million Medicare beneficiaries were screened for STDs and more than 66,000 were tested for HIV, he writes. This is a good idea, seeing as how STDs among seniors have been on the rise for many years; since 2007, chlamydia infections are up by 31 percent and syphilis by 52 percent in those over 65.

Emmanuel points to numerous reasons why this is happening. People are living longer, staying healthier, and popping Viagra, which means more years of sexual activity (some likely occurring after divorce or the death of a long-time spouse). Single, older adults are relocating to retirement communities, which Emmanuel says are rapidly becoming like college dorms: “They cram a lot of similarly aged people together, and when they do, things naturally happen.”

Possibly the biggest issue, however, is that these adults were out of the dating scene long before the safe sex message was prevalent. As Emmanuel put it, they never got the memo “or when it came through, they didn’t think it applied to them. They obviously don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. And they grew up before the safe sex message.”

He suggests doctors talk to older patients about sex and that we start safer sex campaigns aimed not just at college students and the young, but at the old as well. He has other ideas about promoting condom use: a free condom with every social security check, perhaps. I’d argue that since the fishbowl of condoms at health services and outside the resident advisor’s door has worked well on college campuses, maybe it’s time for nursing homes to do the same.

This reminds me of my favorite condom-buying story. I was 22 and buying some Trojans at the small drug store near my apartment. The nice older gentleman (definitely over 70) who had just checked out ahead of me saw me struggling to reach them in the tall display and offered to help. I blushed—assuming he had no idea what he was reaching for—but said “thank you” politely. He examined the box carefully as he handed it to me. I blushed more. He then reached into his bag and pulled out the box of condoms he had just paid for, pointed to what was in my hand, and asked the cashier, “Are hers better?”

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  • badphairy

    Having worked in primary care, the children of the newly-resexed elderly are quite reluctant to talk to their parents about STDs, too.