The pharmaceuticalization of sexual risk: vaccine development and the new politics of cancer prevention

Soc Sci Med. 2014 Jan:101:155-65. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.11.028. Epub 2013 Nov 21.


Vaccine development is a core component of pharmaceutical industry activity and a key site for studying pharmaceuticalization processes. In recent decades, two so-called cancer vaccines have entered the U.S. medical marketplace: a vaccine targeting hepatitis B virus (HBV) to prevent liver cancers and a vaccine targeting human papillomavirus (HPV) to prevent cervical and other cancers. These viruses are two of six sexually transmissible infectious agents (STIs) that are causally linked to the development of cancers; collectively they reference an expanding approach to apprehending cancer that focuses attention simultaneously "inward" toward biomolecular processes and "outward" toward risk behaviors, sexual practices, and lifestyles. This paper juxtaposes the cases of HBV and HPV and their vaccine trajectories to analyze how vaccines, like pharmaceuticals more generally, are emblematic of contemporary pharmaceuticalization processes. We argue that individualized risk, in this case sexual risk, is produced and treated by scientific claims of links between STIs and cancers and through pharmaceutical company and biomedical practices. Simultaneous processes of sexualization and pharmaceuticalization mark these cases. Our comparison demonstrates that these processes are not uniform, and that the production of risks, subjects, and bodies depends not only on the specificities of vaccine development but also on the broader political and cultural frames within which sexuality is understood.

Keywords: Cancer prevention; Pharmaceuticalization; Sexual risk; Sexualization; Vaccines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Hepatitis B / prevention & control
  • Hepatitis B Vaccines / administration & dosage*
  • Humans
  • Liver Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Male
  • Papillomavirus Infections / prevention & control
  • Papillomavirus Vaccines / administration & dosage*
  • Politics*
  • Risk
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Sexuality
  • United States
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Young Adult


  • Hepatitis B Vaccines
  • Papillomavirus Vaccines