On October 15, the New York Times reported that adolescents who are vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV) aren’t more promiscuous than those who don’t get vaccinated. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that raises the risk of some cancers. It’s not surprising that a vaccine has no effect on adolescent sexual behavior. What is surprising is that fear of “sluttiness” is the number-one reason parents decide not to vaccinate their kids against HPV.
Put another way: A large proportion of parents in the United States are more afraid of their kids having sex than they are of their kids getting cancer.
In fact, “slut-shaming” and negative messaging about female and non-straight sexuality could themselves be compared to a viral infection. A study published in November 2011 found that nearly half of students in grades seven through 12 experienced sexual harassment, and that most of the harassment is directed at girls for being either “slutty” or “prudes” or against kids who are suspected of being gay.
Seeking to shame someone because of her or his real or perceived sexual activity and desire is prevalent among teens and constitutes a type of bullying that is extremely damaging. The 2011 study noted that students reported being particularly negatively affected by slut shaming. Research consistently shows that LGBTI youth have a much higher rate of suicide or suicide attempts than the general population, with a strong correlation between depression or self-harm and gay bashing.
Slut shaming and gay bashing originate with adults. I don’t mean just adults who tell children that all sex outside marriage is bad or consign LGBTI kids to celibacy, or banish them to hell. I mean adults who refuse to have a real conversation with teenagers about sex and all that comes with it — good or bad. The sex-negative culture we have created by not having real conversations about sex and relationships affects everyone.