Has the Bikini Wax Eradicated a Scourge of the One-Night Stand?

After several million years of intimacy, humanity and pubic lice are splitting up.
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After several million years of intimacy, humanity and pubic lice are splitting up.
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Environmentalists refer to the now daily elimination of species through habitat destruction as the “Sixth Great Extinction,” but they tend not to mention the fate of the pubic louse – at least not at free-wheeling, devil-may-care climate change conventions. Like the Javan Rhinocerous and the Hoary-Throated Spinetail, the common “crab” is at risk due to deforestation. After decades of partial and complete pubic hair removal by large segments of society, Pthirus Pubis is heading for oblivion without even a philanthropic organization to pamphlet on its behalf.

"Correlation is not causation!" snap entomologists when confronted by writers, like myself, curious about how crabs have been affected by our scorched-earth approach to pubic hair. And there is good reason they’re cautious to discuss their nitpicky research: The trend was a trend well before it was actually a trend. For decades, spurious data was tarted up with some anecdotal evidence and sold as a popular hunch: Our zealous depilatory methods have these grey, millimeter-long parasites on the run! It wasn’t true. But now, according to a new study out of Milton Keynes General Hospital, it’s happening for real.

The study, conducted in the UK, found that from 2003 to 2013, the percentage of patients with pubic lice dropped from 1.8 percent to 0.07 percent. Over that same period, the incidence of pubic hair removal has increased from 33.2 percent to 87.1 percent. And while yes, correlation is not causation, another interesting finding was that among the patients with confirmed cases of pubic lice, 94.21 percent reported never having removed any short and curlies.

"This paper is the best of the batch," says entomologist Gwen Pearson about the study, albeit grudgingly. The entomologist and author of the Charismatic Minifauna blog on Wired.com takes issue with the paper’s assertion about the species' possible extinction, which she says is an unsupported claim - then immediately offers one of her own: "The vast majority of the world’s population does not remove their hair."

In truth, however, no one really knows how people are currently presenting their genitals in Ashgabat, Maputo, or Nuku’alofa (well, the guys in those cities no, but they’ve let their correspondence slip). What we do know is that, in 2014, aesthetic trends don’t tend to stay local for very long. For the pubic louse, that’s very bad news.

* * *

Crabs’ demise is never going to tug at our heart strings in the way that the thought of a polar bear swimming in an iceless ocean does, but given, our species’ long entanglement with the bloodsucking parasite, I decided that I owed these contemptible creepy crawlies the benefit of the doubt. After all, we go way back.

Crabs have been sucking the blood of humans for 3.3 million years. Allow me to put that in perspective: We’ve only been Homo sapiens for a tenth of that time. Pthirus pubisitself perches on the same evolutionary tree as Pthirus gorillae (now also in decline due to the fact that their gorilla hosts are themselves endangered due to, you guessed it, habitat destruction). As our forebears became less hirsute over time, the transplanted louse was always relegated to proto-people’s pubic regions, making itself at home there for thousands of millennia. Back hair is inhospitable.

Cutting back foliage to foil these critters has been going on for a while too: Practitioners of the world’s oldest profession figured out that they could avoid job-related itchiness by completely ridding themselves of their pubic hair. In the 15th Century, unlike today, the bare look was not a la mode, leading prostitutes of the late Middle Ages to include a sort of pubic toupee – called a merkin – as a part of their work uniform. Still, harlots’ bushwhacking measures, though innovative, weren't nearly as effective at killing off the louse as the institutionalized grooming trends of the past 20 years seem to have been.

The one and only friend I know to have had crabs is over a decade my senior and picked them up in Glasgow, Scotland in the early eighties, years before terms like "Brazilian wax" and "manscaping" made their way into common use – at least in Glasgow, Scotland. As of 2005, studies showed that 99 percent of British women over the age of 16 years removed at least some of their hair. Times changed for the better.

"I can tell you this," said Jack, thinking back to the hellacious itching of a wilder, woolier time. "It wasn’t the least bit pleasant."

* * *

Affecting around two percent of the worldwide population, infestations of pubic lice are most commonly seen in people who are young (teens and twenties), partnered, and sexually active. An Indiana University study from 2010 found that while it was more common for U.S. women to have at least some pubic hair, total hair removal was most strongly correlated with women sharing the same description of the traditionally lousy: Young, partnered and sexually active.

Our sex lives have become a targeted attack on the lives of our six-legged dependents. And it’s easy to find evidence of WMDs:

• A 2006 study showed a decline in pubic lice infestations between 1997 and 2003 despite an increase in the prevalence of chlamydia and gonorrhea – STI’s that are contagious whether or not hair is present.   

• Planned Parenthood treated just 36 cases of pubic lice in 2011. Though this increased to 105 the following year, the organization’s media contact said that in a country of over 315 million people those were "…quite small numbers."  

• In early 2013, Bloomberg reported that the main sexual health clinic in Sydney, Australia hadn't seen a woman with pubic lice since 2008 .

For the better part of a decade, stories featuring tidbits like these suggested that like the giant panda, the Amur leopard and a depressingly long list of other creatures, the pubic louse was succumbing to habitat destruction. But it wasn’t until 2014 that we saw the publication of research that aimed to establish a less dubious link between fashion and the sharp decline in people presenting infestations.

* * *

Dr. Pearson – Bug_Gwen on Twitter – conceded that the latest study seemed to show that removing pubic hair decreased infestations of pubic lice but sluiced permethrin over the authors’ assertion that crabs were going the way of the dodo. That viewpoint is shared by Karen Needham, Assistant Curator at the Spencer Entomological Collection at the University of British Columbia. Needham told me that the species' extinction is unlikely given the "number of lice, short generation time, large numbers of offspring […] and the astronomical number of available hosts."

The question, according to the authors of the new study, is whether or not crabs will – like the Matthew McConaughey in Interstellar – go out in search of new, less denuded worlds. A diaspora to beards, chest hair, and eyelashes is probably the worst-case scenario for humans, but Dr. Pearson points out that lice already sometimes colonize these other areas, but can be dealt with pretty quickly. She also quelled my concern that like the grizzly-polar bear hybrid (known as a grolar or pizzly bear), displaced pubic lice might breed with head lice to create some sort of mega louse.

"They diverged millions of years ago," she says. "I would be extremely surprised if they even tried to interbreed, much less were able to."

The reason I’ve never gotten crabs is the same reason I’ve never seen a mountain lion in Manhattan. We’ve created a landscape that is incompatible with the survival of their species. Given the proliferation of uniformly hair-free pornography, our approach to landscaping seems unlikely to change. Threatened species will make their final stand in the shadows. Crabs aren’t gone yet, but they’re rare around these parts.

Photos by DreamPictures / Shannon Faulk / Corbis