With pubic grooming on the rise, could we see a spike in STIs?
Worldwide, pubic hair removal is becoming more prevalent in both men and women.
This shift appears to be due to perceptions of attractiveness, feelings of masculinity and femininity, and cleanliness.
Researchers from a number of American universities recently set out to better understand the effect, if any, that pubic grooming has on an individual's susceptibility to STIs.
The team asked a nationally representative sample of American adults about their intimate grooming habits and their history of STIs. The results are published today in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections.
Data on intimate grooming
In total, more than 14,000 people aged 18-65 were polled (56 percent were men). The questionnaire asked about the intensity of grooming - whether it was a trim or complete removal, and frequency - on a scale from daily to annually. They also asked about the types of tools used - wet shave or electric razor, for instance.
People who removed all of their pubic hair more than 11 times each year were classified as "extreme" groomers, and those who trimmed their pubic hair daily or weekly were classed as "high frequency" groomers.
The questionnaires also asked participants about their sexual history - 7,470 of the respondents had had at least one sexual partner.
In total, 74 percent of participants had groomed their hair (84 percent women, 66 percent men). Of the 74 percent, 17 percent were classified as "extreme," and 22 percent were "high frequency." Ten percent of groomers fell into both categories.
Groomers, in general, tended to be younger, more sexually active, and have had more sexual partners throughout their lives.
Most commonly, an electric razor was the tool of choice among men (42 percent), and a manual razor was most common among women (61 percent). Roughly 20 percent of women and men used scissors.
At least one STI was reported by 943 respondents (13 percent). The STIs that were quantified included molluscum (a viral infection affecting the skin), syphilis, HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and pubic lice.
Examining the effects of private grooming
The investigators controlled for age and number of sexual partners to observe whether the act of grooming itself would have a significant effect on STI infection. Once they had controlled for these variables, they found that any type of grooming was associated with an 80 percent increase in the risk of having one STI, compared with no grooming.
Beyond this, intensity and frequency appeared to play a part. For high frequency and extreme groomers, there was a 3.5- to 4-fold increase in risk. This risk was particularly pronounced for infections that require skin-to-skin contact, such as herpes and HPV.
The researchers theorize that, during grooming, small tears in the skin might occur that could allow bacteria and viruses to enter the body with more ease.
On the other side of the fence, low-intensity and low-frequency grooming were associated with a doubling in the risk of lice infestation. It seems a reasonable conclusion to draw that grooming might make it more difficult for lice to breed.
Because the study is observational, it is not possible to prove cause and effect. However, because the act of shaving pubic hair is sometimes considered a way to prepare for a sexual encounter, whether the link is causal or statistical, the findings may be useful for building strategies to reduce STI rates.
As the authors write:
"Irrespective of the ultimate underlying mechanisms, we believe that a better understanding of the relation between grooming and STIs may be useful for STI risk reduction. For instance, if our positive findings reflect a statistical correlation between grooming and STI acquisition, this information could be used to target STI risk prevention."
There are a number of other details that could not be picked out of the data; for instance, the questionnaire did not gather information regarding safe sex practices and risky sexual behaviors.
Although further work is necessary, the large sample used in the current trial gives validity to the findings.
More studies will be needed to fill in the blanks as far as pubic topiary is concerned. For now, clinicians who spot signs of grooming may begin to recommend safer sex practices and delaying sex until skin has healed.