Cunnilingus Fear – Can Oral Sex Cause Throat Cancer?

Actor Michael Douglas, who is currently appearing in the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, came out this week as saying that his bout of throat cancer he recently experienced  may have been caused by all of the oral sex that he performed on women over the years.

Let me begin by saying that yes, there is a small chance of the HPV virus (carried by 70% of the population – that’s women and men) can cause oral and throat cancers in those who perform oral sex on women who have HPV. And no, there doesn’t have to be a full outbreak (i.e. actual warts) present for this to occur.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 90% of people will clear the virus in the first year. Leaving about 10% (not all of these cases will develop cancer) with the chronic disease that may be completely asymptomatic .  As if some men needed more of a reason to not go down on their female sex partners. That may sound harsh and I don’t deny that there has been a rise in HPV oral and throat cancers over the past twenty years. Some doctors have even referred to it as an epidemic among men. But I have found the reporting on this to be very one sided. Cunnilingus is getting a bad rap. 

Should anyone who performs oral sex be safe? Yes, just as safe as they are with any other sexual behavior. Which, means using a barrier method – also known as a dental dam or if need be some plastic wrap. Does performing oral sex guarantee that you will get cancer? No, it is still considered a fairly low risk sexual activity.

Cunnilingus FearSome younger folks are finding solace in the HPV vaccine Guardasil, while those of us already exposed can reduce our risk even more by drinking and smoking less. Worst-case scenario, I do want people to know that this is a highly treatable form of cancer, with a 95% cure rate if caught early. As someone who has had cancer successfully treated, let me say that the advancements available now are mind boggling.

No one wants cancer but we also cannot live in a culture of fear and if you are a man who is reluctant to perform oral sex, please don’t use this as an excuse to not give your partner pleasure. Just be smart about it. Give cunnilingus a chance.


 is the resident sexologist at Adam & Eve and also runs a private practice and media consulting business. She has a Doctorate from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. Her professional affiliations include AASECT, SSSS, and the American Board of Sexologists. She also has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and completed a postgraduate degree in Marriage, Family and Addictions Recovery Therapy.

© Copyright Dr. Kathleen Van Kirk