Lesbians, HPV, and Cervical Cancer

November 30, 2018

There’s a growing public awareness that sexually transmitted HPV infections are associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer, and other ailments, but not everybody is aware of just how readily HPV is transmitted or how common it is. Because of this, there are groups that may not have any idea they’re at risk for HPV infection or associated cancers.

Lesbians, historically, are among those groups, both since they are often not as engaged with healthcare as heterosexual women and because doctors normally have a poor understanding of lesbian sex and the dangers it may carry for STD transmission. The percentage of women who have sex with women who know that HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact and can be passed sexually between female spouses is far lower than it should be.

Lack of HPV Screening

Awareness isn’t the sole reason that lesbians and other women who have sex with women are at risk of poor consequences of HPV. One of the reasons that lesbians have historically suffered from higher morbidity and mortality from cervical cancer is the fact that women who do not require birth control are often less proactive about visiting a gynecologist. They might not be aware that they are in danger of STDs or other reproductive health concernsnonetheless, they might also be reluctant to seek out rectal examinations and gynecologic care due to a lack of a history of negative interactions with physicians.

Without routine gynecological visits, girls are less likely to get appropriate Pap smears. That means that if and when cervical cancers are diagnosed, they are of a later stage, more dangerous, and much more deadly. Improving screening compliance, possibly through the use of HPV tests and self-swabs, may be just one way to decrease morbidity and mortality among sexual minority women.

Lack of HPV Prevention

Finally, prevention interventions have never been efficiently targeted to young lesbians. A 2015 study according to national survey data found that lesbians were far less inclined to be vaccinated against HPV than were their heterosexual counterparts. In the period between 2006 and 2010, just 8.5 percent of lesbian identified women aged 15-25 were vaccinated compared to 28% of heterosexual girls. This probably reflects perceptions of disease threat, at least in part, as evidenced by the fact that vaccination rates among bisexual women were higher – 33 percent. A study with more recent data found higher vaccination rates but the sample was not representative of the overall populace, and also the reported rates were lower than for heterosexual women.


Lesbians suffer from lots of health disparities that are linked to cervical cancer threat. Many of these disparities can be traced back, at least in part, to the joys of being a member of a sexual minority. Others can be traced back to ignorance.

Reducing lesbians’ risk of cervical cancer will require a multifaceted approach. Insurance policy will have to continue to improve with this under-served group of girls.

Doctors need to be trained in more confirming attitudes about working with sex and sexual minorities. In the end, girls need to be educated about the truth that anyone who’s sexually active is at risk for HPV. Though most infections will go away on their own, that’s still something that everyone has to be conscious of.