The Feminist Implications of Male Reproductive Health
As women continue to fight for control over our own bodies, we're also faced with a parallel battle: Advocating for men to share responsibility for the physical, emotional, and financial burdens of reproductive health.
I'm currently working on a story that touches on a lighter side of this problem—sex partners who don't quite understand how your birth control method actually works. If you've ever heard any bizarre theories about how exactly that pill stops babies from popping out of your ladyparts, please let me know.
But the tendency to place the burden for reproductive health on women reaches into far more serious territory. Case in point: Gardasil, the vaccine that prevents against HPV, was initially exclusively developed for use in young women, even though the virus affects 75 percent of men and women under 50. What's up with that?
In the new issue of Ms. Magazine, Dr. Adina Nack of California Lutheran University attacks the issue of the HPV vaccine's inconsistent application among men and women. According to a Ms. press release:
The CDC recommends “routine” vaccination for females ages 9-26 but, last October, after the FDA approved Gardasil for prevention of genital warts in boys and men, the CDC voted in favor of a lesser recommendation of “permissive” use in males that is likely to make the vaccine less affordable for men.
Translation: While the CDC permits use of this vaccine among both men and women, it only recommends that women receive the vaccination. The effect is that men will be less likely to elect to receive the Gardasil vaccine, and that health insurance companies will be less likely to provide adequate coverage for that use.
Gardasil is chiefly advertised as a method of preventing cervical cancer among women, an approach which glosses over the serious medical problems that HPV can cause in men—including genital warts, anal cancer, and oral cancer. There have been a few recent developments in providing access to the vaccine to young men. Today, in light of a Gardasil study that found the vaccine "successfully prevents deadly anal cancer in men," the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met to consider the expansion of the HPV vaccine in men [PDF]. Yesterday, Health Canada approved the vaccine for use in Canadian men aged 9-26 in order to prevent genital warts.
Why have we been slow to recommend this vaccine equally to both men and women? Men's reproductive health has not traditionally been medicalized like women's bodies have been. Women are accustomed to being subjected to annual medical check-ups on the status of their sexual health, including what sort of damage HPV may be looking to exact on their cervix. Men aren't. So while I'm forced to receive my annual pap smear and raft of STD tests in order to receive a refill on my birth control prescription, my male sex partner is subject to no such requirement. When you start considering the possibility of injecting young people with three doses of a vaccine that, like all vaccines, holds possible side-effects, women are the natural recipient of such a remedy. Their bodies have already been engaged in these issues, while male bodies have so far been kept at a distance.
As Nack notes, advocating for men to take control of their reproductive health can only help women:
“Feminists have a vested interest in advocating for policies and circumstances around the world that shape men’s ability to develop healthy sex lives, which, by definition, has to include respect for the rights of those with whom they partner, regardless of gender,” says Patricia Rieker, Ph.D., a sociologist at Boston University and Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Gender and Health (Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Nack's piece is entitled, "Why Men’s Health Is a Feminist Issue." And women's health is a men's issue, too. As Nack notes, we can't be solely concerned with how STIs will affect our own bodies when we're responsible for spreading these viruses to each other. "Women’s health—especially reproductive health—is usually the focus of sexual-health discussions but men’s health also deserves women’s attention—and not just because women care about their sons, male partners and male friends," she writes. "It almost goes without saying that women can also be infected by their intimate partners, and since the great majority of women primarily have heterosexual relations, that usually means by men."