Academic Vindication

In September of 2006, I shared a small observation about Sport's research on pap smears and HPV. Just a little over 5 years later, her research was vindicated on an NPR morning edition story. Sport's conclusion, which she delineates in her 2010 Feminist Formations Journal article, is that "terms like 'risk and "sexually transmitted disease (STD)' are used to simplify the discussions about HPV to simple 'for' or 'against' positions about vaccinating women and girls. Such positions limit the ways actors can address Gardasil and place public health responsibility upon the bodies of women and girls." Turns out that HPV causes "cancers of the cervix, vagina and vulva in females; penile cancer in boys; both get HPV-associated genital warts" and may be at least partially responsible for "an epidemic of head and neck cancers, and we are seeing this increase in ... nonsmokers." HPV is not an STD, insofar as warts are not only spread through sexual touching. Foucault, were he alive would have a field day with this. Instead, Sport took it upon herself to identify this problematic cultural enthymeme that NOBODY seems to tackle.

Sport knew that the rhetorical force of incorrectly calling HPV an STD set all sorts of social machinery in motion. In the process of trying to get this article published, Sport felt pushback from nearly everyone. The primary investigator in the CDC Gardasil trials both resisted calling for boys to be immunized and calling HPV something other than an STD (and she considers herself a feminist). Friends questioned her expertise (and right) to dabble in seemingly settled medical issues. Colleagues cobbled together anecdotal evidence to suggest that perhaps HPV should indeed be called an STD (or that she should sympathize with those who continue to do so). When she brought up the topic on the feminist blogs, most commenters would protest that this kind of dangerous attitude might hurt girls (turns out that calling HPV an STD made immunizing girls a non-starter for many, many parents). Even the editors at Feminist Formations suggested to Sport that she back off of her conclusions.

Anybody who knows her would be unsurprised that Sport was undeterred. Her passionate advocacy for women's autonomy--medical or otherwise--kept her on a path of declaring that the Emperor had no clothes. To be fair, all of the critique and criticism from others DID help her point her critique squarely at the heart of the problem--gendered formulation of medical research, diagnosis, and treatment regimes. Feminist Formations did publish this article (I can send a copy if you would like it). Perhaps most gratifyingly, it turns out, the medical establishment has begun to recognize what she knew nearly 5 years ago--gender assumptions still permeate the medical industrial complex. Breaking these gender chains might better help us prevent pain for 12,000 women who have cervical cancer, 1,400 men who have penile cancer, and 50,000 men and women who have head and neck cancer. EVERY YEAR.

It's nice to see academic work vindicated--doubly so when so many people cast doubt on it. Sport did a good, good thing.