If there’s one trick that terrible sex-ed programs rely on to scare teens out of boning, it’s the idea that only abstinence can keep you safe from spiritual ruin and disease. But a new study published in The Journal of Infectious Disease seems to undercut even the basic premise of that scare tactic: Being a virgin doesn’t necessarily protect you from catching common sexually transmitted infections like the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause genital warts and cancer.
The researchers, from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, looked at data from an earlier study involving healthy male volunteers living in Brazil, the United States, and Mexico. The original study, meant to gain a picture of how and which types of HPV spread in men, tracked more than 4,000 men (ages 18 to 70) from 2005 to 2009 via check-ups taken six months apart for up to 10 visits. This study more specifically focused on the 87 men who self-identified as virgins at the start of the study. And while they found that sexually active men were at greater risk of catching HPV, male virgins could come down with it too. Around a quarter had any HPV strain, and nearly a fifth had a high risk strain known to cause cancer.
“Previous studies have found HPV among female virgins, but this is the first to find it among male virgins,” study author Alan Nyitray, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said in a statement. “Finding HPV in this population was not entirely surprising, but it reinforces the point that HPV vaccination should not be thought of only in the context of sexual behavior.”
As best as they can guess, though, these unlucky virgins did likely catch their HPV through sexual activity—we’re talking at least sliding around second base territory like “hand to genital contact” or “genital to genital contact.” And because of how contagious the virus is, losing their V-card also quickly upped their risk of HPV: A quarter of former virgins caught HPV within the first year after penetrative sex; nearly half had done so by the second year.
The study is only the latest to beat us over the head with how important it is to vaccinate both boys and girls against HPV as early as possible, even before the birds and bees talk. Not all types of HPV are equally dangerous, but the most common strains around—and the ones we vaccinate against—can increase the risk of developing cancer around our genitals, anus, and throat, even without causing any visible symptoms. Other strains can also cause genital warts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that some 14 million people catch HPV annually, a tally that contributes to around 29,000 cancer cases that could be prevented through vaccination every year.
While HPV doesn’t discriminate by gender, vaccine rates among men have lagged behind women, in part because the vaccine was first only offered and advised for young girls. Currently, it’s recommended that boys and girls get two shots of the vaccine when they’re 11 or 12, while older teens and adults up to age 26 should get three.
So get vaccinated, whether you’re sexually active or not. (And when you’re ready, kids, use a condom!)