It was revealed in the news this week that twenty-four schools across the UK have been denying girls the HPV vaccine - the injection that protects them from the HPV virus that causes cervical cancer - on religious grounds. These religous grounds are that because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, protecting girls from it will lead to them becoming promiscious and 'sexually active'.
According to these twenty-four schools, it is better for young women to get cancer, than it is for them to take control of their sexual health and maybe have sex.
There are so many screwed up things about this story and its impact on young women that it is hard to know where to even begin.
So let's try and start with the facts.
The HPV vaccine was introduced a couple of years ago to immunise women from some of the strands of the HPV virus which can cause cervical cancer. More accurately, it protects against those which cause 70% of cervical cancers. Because HPV is a sexually transmitted disease, it was decided that girls should be vaccinated at ages 12-13, because it is likely that they are not yet sexually active at that age. I remember well the outrage in certain sections of the media at this, who protested that by vaccinating girls against at STD when they were still children, we would be 'removing the dangers' of promiscious sex and 'sexualising young girls'. The Press Complaints Commission were also involved in ruling on a number of scare-mongering stories that linked the HPV vaccine erroneously to young women becoming ill or, in some tragic cases, dying.
Of course, there is no evidence that giving girls a vaccine that aims to protect them from a disease that kills around 1,000 women every year leads to them becoming sexually active. As a schoolgirl in the late 90s and early 00s, protecting ourselves from cervical cancer was not high on our list of concerns when it came to 'what might happen if we do it'. Heck, STDs weren't even high on that list. The threat of pregnancy, the unwanted pregnancy - this was pretty much our number one concern when it came to starting our sex lives. I don't recall ever even being taught about HPV. That might have something to do with the fact that my sex education on STDs involved an 80s World in Action video about AIDS, another AIDs video with interviews with Liz Taylor's daughter-in-law, and a booklet featuring a couple of hedgehogs who were unlucky enough to have caught chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and crabs. Bad hedgehogs. (as an aside, I have told this hedgehog story to many, many people. No-one else I know was taught about STDs at the age of 16 via Mr and Mrs Hedgehog. I went to one of the top comprehensive schools in the UK.)
I refuse to believe that girls across the UK, 12 and 13 year old girls, who are given a jab that they are told will protect them from a virus that can cause cancer, are then going to jump into bed with the first pimply-faced, Lynx-wearing boy they come across, thinking they are safe from ALL potential outcomes of unprotected sex. Do you? As Helen Lewis said in the New Statesman, we never go '"TB jab, you say? Whoopee! Now I can go get consumptive people to cough in my face, for kicks!"'
Anyway, back to these 24 schools.
All of these schools claim that they refuse to give the vaccine because it doesn't reflect the Christian ethos of the school - the ethos being that sex outside of marriage is a sin. They claim:
'"There is already evidence that the vaccine is giving some girls a false sense of security and leading them to think that because they have been vaccinated they are protected against the worst effects of sexual promiscuity and can therefore engage in casual sex without consequence."'
Where this evidence is no-one knows. It doesn't get cited, because it doesn't exist. But the thing that strikes me most about this quote is the phrase 'the worst effects of sexual promiscuity'. Now, to me, the worst effects of having sex are STDs. Particularly STDs that can kill you. Which is why it is so important we do everything we can to make sure that no-one is at risk of contracting horrible and dangerous illnesses. Free condoms. Comprehensive and intelligent sex education. And, if we have a vaccine that can do that, then we need to use it to protect young women.
But for these schools? The worst effects of having sex is the promiscuity in itself. (read this on why I don't believe in promiscuity) It's the idea that there's something inherently wrong with sex outside of marriage in itself, that sex outside of marriage is morally wrong.
It sounds extreme, but I keep returning to the same conclusion. These schools would rather girls get cancer, than have sex outside of marriage.
We all know from America that schools teaching abstinence-only education does not stop young people having sex. Young people have a very natural and normal sexuality that they are going to want to explore. Some may choose to wait until marriage and that is fine, And some won't. Although I don't agree with it, I can understand a school teaching about why you might want to wait, why you might even want to wait until marriage (again, this was a lot what my sex ed looked like). But this has to be coupled with education about consent, respect, and how to look after your body. How to have safe sex, so that you don't catch STDs or get pregnant when you don't want to be. It has to include education about contraception. Most young people will have sex whether we want them to or not. So we have a duty to prepare them, to help them negotiate their sexuality in a positive way. In countries where young people aren't taught about contraception, then the rates of STDs and unwanted pregnancy are high. In the US, at the height of Bush's abstinence-only funding regime, there were 80 teen pregnancies per 1000 (compared to Holland who have good sex ed, only 12 per 1000. Most Western Europe countries are less than 40 per 1000 - stats from pg 161 of Female Chauvinist Pigs). In the US, 1 in 4 people under 25 have an STD (page 167).
We have a duty of care to young people, particularly in a school. It is perfectly possible to teach that you might want to wait, but still say here's a vaccine that will protect you from a sexually transmitted disease that can cause cancer. Having a jab is not going to cause you to have sex. Having unprotected sex when you haven't had the jab may cause you to get cancer. All these schools are doing is burying their heads in the sand at the expense of the health of the girls in their care.
Another ugly twist in this story is that the schools are not telling the young women that they aren't being given a vaccine. They're not consulting with parents - many of whom might not share the religious ethos of the school. Fundamentally, they are taking away the girl's choice to protect herself, to take control of her sexual health. She might want to have the vaccine, she might want to go to her GP and get the vaccine. I mean, wouldn't you? If you knew that there was a vaccine that could go some way to protecting you from a life-threatening illness, wouldn't you want to know about it and get it? These schools are wilfully and determinedly misleading their students so that they can't make an informed and intelligent decision about their sexual health. And it's also taking that decision away from the parents.
And of course, there's the sexism. As is often the case when we talk about abstinence-only education, boys aren't really mentioned much. This was apparent particularly last year, when Nadine Dorries proposed that girls - and only girls - should receive abstinence education. Girls are seen as the gatekeepers of sex and 'sexual virtue'. As I heard it described last week, girls are the 'vessels of honour'. All the talk is about how girls will 'become promiscious', when, unless we're suggesting that girls are having sex only with each other, boys are probably going to be involved somewhere. The fear, the outrage, it isn't around boys having sex though. All of this completely silences the fact that young women are sexual beings who have an active sexuality. It teaches girls that they are passive, that sex is something that is done to them and that they must stop from happening, rather than something they might want to engage in because they feel desire, because they're in love, because they want to. It taps into a whole historic horror of women's sexuality, and puts girl in the role of sexual gatekeepers who must prevent sex from happening. It victimises us, as the idea that we might want to have sex is silenced and forbidden.
My final point is that all the abstinence education and banning of vaccines in the world aren't going to make a damn bit of difference if a girl or woman is raped.
And, considering that half of young girls in an NSPCC study with Bristol Uni reported being victims of sexual violence, and in a recent Mumsnet survey it was reported that 1 in 10 UK women have been raped n this is, sadly, a common occurrence. I know a woman who was raped as a teenager, contracted the HPV virus from her rapists and was diagnosed with cervical cancer a decade later. The vaccine wouldn't have prevented her rape. But it could have prevented this particular subsequent horror.
Surely we owe our young women better than this? Surely we should never want to see a woman go through this? It is outrageous that schools are playing so recklessly with girls' health, girls' lives, because of a religious ethos.
Last year, 957 women died from cervical cancer. We now have a way to protect women from this horrible disease. We need to use it.