Pleasure first, safety maybe

PHOTO: Pleasure first, safety maybe

Oral sex can lead to throat cancer? Whoa.

Refrain from oral sex as a result? Noooo...

That is the reaction from those interviewed.

Pleasure, it seems from a poll of 20 people, plays second fiddle to safety.

People, says clinical sexologist Martha Lee, have always been under the mistaken impression that oral sex is "safe".

Dr Lee, who runs a sexuality and intimacy coaching company here, said: "Many are surprised, even shocked, when I tell them that unprotected or oral sex can turn cancerous."

Dr Lee was responding to an American study released last week which found that the human papillomavirus (HPV) can be spread by oral sex and may cause more cases of throat cancer in men than smoking.

The study was widely published in newspapers across the world last week, giving pause to the oft-held notion that smoking and alcohol abuse were the only major risk factors in throat cancer.

Led by Professor Maura Gillison from the Ohio State University, researchers examined throat tumour tissue collected from 271 patients over a 20-year period, and found that HPV-positive cases of oral cancer shot up from 16 per cent to 72 per cent.

A similar study conducted by Johns Hopkins University in 2007 also found HPV to be a stronger risk factor for throat cancer than tobacco or alcohol use.

The study took blood and saliva from 100 men and women newly diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer, which affects the throat, tonsils and back of the tongue.

Researchers then asked questions about sex practices and other risk factors for the disease such as family history.

Those who had a prior oral HPV infection had a 32-fold increased risk of throat cancer.

Should we be concerned? A World Health Organisation report published last year estimated that 11.4 per cent of women in the world have cervical HPV infection at a given time.

The same report stated that HPV infection in the genital tract has been detected in up to 73 per cent of healthy men.

Yet a random straw poll by The New Paper on Sunday found that most would shrug off the threat.

Out of 20 people polled, only three said they would think twice before engaging in oral sex again.


One of them, a 28-year-old manager said he found the thought of contracting throat cancer through oral sex "scary".

"Thing is, you don't know if you or your partner has HPV or not, as many people are asymptomatic," he said.

It has put him off the idea of oral sex he says.

The rest of those polled had a markedly different response.

A 25-year-old marketing executive, who wanted to be known only as J, said: "We're all going to die of some form of cancer anyway so might as well go out with a bang, right?

"At least you know you made someone happy," he said.

A 23-year-old student majoring in mass communication added that the study's findings made no difference to him.

"Many other daily activities are carcinogenic, such as going out in the sun which can contribute to skin cancer, and yet I still do that.

"So I don't think I would stop engaging in oral sex because of the findings," he said.

Dr Lee, who has a doctorate in human sexuality, noted that while oral sex is not integral to a fulfilling sex life, those who do not engage in it "are missing out", since it could be a pleasurable process.

She surmised that the findings could possibly spur the health-conscious, who currently practise oral sex, to "consider their options".

General practitioner Dr Phua Ling Yaw, while noting that he also did not see an increase in patients consulting him about the health risks posed by HPV and oral sex, pointed out that until the study has been replicated in a local context, the public should be more concerned about the correlation between smoking and throat cancer.

"More than 90 per cent of throat cancer patients in Singapore are smokers. This correlation is something I believe warrants more concern, " said Dr Phua, who practices at Shenton Family Medical Clinic (Duxton).

This article was first published in The New Paper.