In her 2002 song "Work It," the venerable Missy Elliott urged her lover to "go downtown and eat it like a vulture." But a new study is now suggesting that "eat[ing] it like a vulture" might carry some complicated health risks with it.
As if sex partners 'round the world needed yet another excuse to evade the all-important duty of cunnilingus, a new study is suggesting that oral sex can dramatically increase one's risk for head and neck cancers, due to the risk of the STI human papillomavirus (HPV) being transmitted during the act.
The study led by Dr. Ilir Agalliu and Dr. Robert D. Burk at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Oncology. The team sought to examine a possible link between HPV (in one's mouth) and risk for head and neck cancers.
"This study is important because it provides for the first time clear evidence that detection of HPV-16 in the oral cavity preceded the diagnosis of head and neck cancers," Agalliu told Mic.
Agalliu and Burk tested mouthwash samples from nearly 97,000 peoples' mouths, all of whom were cancer-free at the start of the study. By the end of four years, on average, 132 cases of head and neck cancer were identified, 103 of which were male participants. In the end, researchers concluded that "people with HPV-16 in their mouthwash samples were 22 times more likely to develop oropharyngeal cancer than were study participants with no detectable HPV-16 in their samples."
While oral HPV is typically understood to be transmitted via oral sex, Agalliu told Mic that the research doesn't conclusively say there is a direct correlation between going down on your beloved and developing a head or neck disease. He also noted, while we're speculating, that "finger play" could be just as likely a culprit in people getting HPV in their mouths.
"We did not have information on sexual behaviors in the dataset we analyzed, and could not directly address whether higher prevalence of HPVs was associated with sexual behaviors," he said. "It should be noted, importantly, that detection of HPV types frequently found on the skin in the oral cavity (in this study), suggest that potential transmission to the oral cavity could occur by direct contact of fingers during various activities."
So should we be panicking or what? Well, prob. not. HPV is the most common STI according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which writes that "it's so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives."
And while it's true that that oral sex-granting men are more at risk for oral HPV than women (remember Michael Douglas's weird humblebrag that he got throat cancer from giving lots o' cunnilingus?), it's also true that the introduction of HPV vaccinations have been combating the virus rather aggressively in recent years. A 2013 study, for instance, found that vaccinations had resulted in a 56% decrease of new HPV cases among 14 to 19-year-old females since the vaccines came out in 2006.
At the end of the day, the best bet for total peace of mind while engaging in oral sex is for both partners to just get tested for STIs beforehand. Once you know that you're both HPV-free, then go ahead and eat it like a vulture.
h/t The Frisky