When talking about risks related to sex, a delicate balance is necessary. For too long, fear was used as a tool to keep people away from sex. It’s a strategy that hasn’t worked, of course. Instead, it’s simply forced people to have sex without access to good information, and without anyone to talk to.
At the same time, sex does come with risks, and its important to understand those risks so you can make fully informed decisions.
For a while, oral sex was assumed to be a form of “safer sex.” This largely came from messaging around HIV risk. But HIV isn’t the only risk associated with sex, and oral sex shouldn’t necessarily be considered safer than vaginal or anal intercourse.
Human papillomavirus (HPV,) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, according to the CDC. And while HPV is most commonly spread through vaginal or anal sex, it can also be spread by oral sex. And yes, HPV can cause cancer of the mouth or throat.
According to the NHS (UK), “Around 1 in 4 mouth cancers and 1 in 3 throat cancers are HPV-related, but in younger patients most throat cancers are now HPV-related.” But don’t get too worried. They go on to say, “This study also looked at how common mouth and throat cancers were in people carrying harmful types of HPV, and found it's still very rare: around 7 in 1,000 men and 2 in 1,000 women.”
What can you do about it? Open communication is one of the best ways to keep yourself safe(er.) Always have a safer sex conversation before playing with a new partner, and have regular check-ins with existing partners too. And when sharing STI testing history, keep in mind that infections can be location specific, and a throat swab is necessary to detect STI infections present in the mouth or throat.
Unfortunately, when it comes to HPV, testing is a little trickier than with other STIs. A Pap test can check for HPV on the cervix, but there’s no test for people with penises. And HPV can be present without any symptoms.
To protect yourself and your partner(s,) remember that barriers aren’t just for penetrative sex. Use condoms or dental dams when engaging in oral sex. (There have been innovations in dental dams in recent years - check out the panty style dams that are more user friendly.)
And if you aren’t already, get vaccinated! Current CDC recommendations are for people aged 11-26 to receive a HPV vaccine. And with the guidance of a doctor, the vaccines are now available to people 27-45 years old as well.