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by Hannah P.

As an eleven or twelve-year-old preteen in the mid-2000s, I attended a routine physical with my mother at our local pediatrician’s office. I was receiving all the updated, normal vaccines for my age, such as the MenACWY and Tdap vaccines. The doctor asked if I would be vaccinated against HPV, which protects against HPV strains that cause several types of cancer. My mother, a Christian conservative, responded, “No, she will not.”

I assume there was some verbal pushback from the doctor because I distinctly recall my mom stating, “If she becomes sexually active (outside of marriage), she can either choose to receive the vaccine herself or deal with the consequences.” At that time, I didn’t understand the so-called “consequences,” but I didn’t have to receive any more shots. I considered that a win—until I reached young adulthood. 

My perspective as an adult

Now, as a 24-year-old, I am realizing the deep roots purity culture has established in my life, even down to my vaccination records. My mother believed it was more important to try and prevent me from having premarital sex than it was for me to receive a potentially life-saving vaccine. In her mind, and in the minds of some other Christians, sex before marriage was the end of my opportunity to have a successful, flourishing, and loving marriage. Parents believed that if sex was thought about, talked about, or protected against, it would ultimately lead to a loss of virginity and purity. I do not blame my mother for this. I wonder if she realizes what the decision not to vaccinate implies, but she is not the villain of this tale.

I learned that other parents refused HPV vaccination for their children

I recently shared this personal revelation online, and was astonished to find out that I was not alone in my lack of protection against HPV. Many women shared their own stories with me. A few people stated that they refused to vaccinate their children against HPV due to the newness and unknowns surrounding the vaccine. Some even began to dwell on the pull that purity culture had in their own decisions. To this I say, “There is grace to the mothers and fathers who did not know better. I forgive you.”

Other unvaccinated women shared my own experience. Their parents were hesitant and ultimately decided that this vaccine was unimportant due to the assumed past, present, and future purity of their children. To these individuals I say, “I am sorry. Your virginity is not and will never be more important than your physical health.” 

Louisa Watt, whose mother had cervical cancer, described purity culture as having “simplistic and graceless logic.” Others had stories of abuse, infidelity, or personal mistakes. They did not deserve the blame purity culture sold their guardians. Your personhood can never be stolen from you, regardless of your sexual past.

My perspective on the HPV vaccine today

In Christian spaces, we continue to sacrifice health at the altar of “sexual purity.” Purity culture infiltrates even the most sanitized spaces—including our doctor’s offices. It puts the maintenance of sexual purity (whatever that means), over an individual’s health. This type of culture leaves no space for mistakes or failures: you are either a new, unwrapped piece of gum or you are a trampled rose. You are pure or you are not. 

Essential aspects of the gospel are missing in this informal “sex ed” course: the core aspects of grace and mercy. Yes, our faith asks us to save sex for marriage, but where we falter Jesus has grace. I do not think it is too much of a reach to believe that, for your past or your partner’s past, vaccines such as the HPV vaccine are a form of Jesus’s grace. This vaccine also provides his mercy and protection for survivors of sexual abuse, caused by no fault of their own. If we, as Christians, and specifically as Christian parents, can prevent these mistakes of a fallen world from having a permanent impact, then perhaps we should reconsider and quiet our fear surrounding the HPV vaccine.

Hannah P. is a student studying behavioral health and trauma. She serves in an inner city ministry and is passionate about justice within the church, particularly issues related to gender and sexuality. Her story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing Noah at [email protected]. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

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