What is a time of joy for many women was my darkest hour.
Never say that epidemiologists don’t have a sense of humor. And great timing. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (which we inexplicably call the CDC—I guess the “P” falls by the wayside in acronyms as well as public health policy) released some grim information about the state of Sexually Transmitted Infections in the United States.
Mainly, we’re all a bunch of dirty, disease-ridden plague carriers. The CDC estimates there are 110 million total STI infections in the US right now, which is over 1/3 the population.
Okay, so maybe not all of you have ridealongs in your underoos. But the CDC is observing some disturbing trends, like the fact that there are almost 20 million new STI cases in the US every year, over half of which happen in young folks between the ages of 17 and 24. Research in the latest edition of “Sexually Transmitted Diseases” indicated that there’s a big disparity in infection rates that needs to be addressed, with the overwhelming burden on young adults.
New diagnoses are also increasing, as a lookback at prevalence from prior years shows. Human papilloma virus leads the list, but you’ll see a lot of old friends on there; HIV/AIDS, chlamydia, syphilis, and more are all increasing in the general population, and a few treatment-resistant strains are also starting to make themselves heard, which is extra-bad news. Because the only thing worse than having the clap is having drug-resistant clap.
This is creating a considerable economic burden. A team of researchers took a look at direct medical costs associated with STIs in 2008, and found that $15.6 billion was spent on STI treatment. Including not just issues like treating infections directly, but also managing complications, and, in the case of conditions like HIV/AIDS, taking on lifetime patient care needs.
WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE, PEOPLE?!
The CDC says that a three-pronged approach is necessary to address this issue. We need prevention (uh, yeah), prompt diagnosis (the longer an infection goes without detection, the more chance of passing it on, and developing complications), and rapid treatment (why sit around with your thumb up your butt when you could be taking antibiotics?!).
I totally agree, and I also think it’s time to seriously start talking about why the STI rate is climbing in the US, giving us the dubious distinction of being at the top of the list of “most dangerous people to make sweet sweet love to” in the West.
Because the answer to this question should be pretty obvious: this country has terrible sexual education.
And that’s because a bunch of conservative fiddle-faddles have been allowed to dictate what teachers are allowed to talk about in sexual education, and have been pouring funds into execrable abstinence-only education programs that do jack shit to actually protect precious young minds and bodies from the dangers of the real world. It’s no wonder that young men and women are leading the pack when it comes to new STI cases. They don’t know any better, and that’s our fault.
Access to comprehensive sexual education puts the P in Prevention, or however you want to put it. You want people to not get STIs, costing themselves and the government billions of dollars? Provide them with information on how they can prevent infections. And yes, abstinence is one way to avoid getting STIs, but it’s not the only way.
These kids today need to be learning about condoms and dental dams and birth control options and all that stuff so they can make their own informed decisions about how they want to manage their bodies and their lives. Depriving them of that information is exposing them to a very real and very dangerous public health epidemic without a parachute (perhaps “raincoat” would be a more fitting metaphor here, eh?), and it sickens me that people squealing about the sanctity of life and family values think nothing of sending our children out there into the world with very limited understanding of how their own bodies work.
SEX: IT HAPPENS. DEAL WITH IT.
Part and parcel with the focus on abstinence-only education comes a healthy heaping of shaming and a concerted effort to keep people ignorant about their bodies. It’s not just about the fact that many young adults aren’t familiar with basic safer sex options, it’s that many don’t fully understand their bodies. Girls are graduating from high school with an imperfect understanding of their own anatomy, let alone how pregnancy and childbirth work, and boys aren’t any better equipped. Meanwhile, discussion of intersex and trans bodies is left the curriculum altogether.
And people are ashamed to ask questions. They think they should already know these things and that people will mock them for asking. Or they think it’s not appropriate or polite, or that something they’re experiencing must be normal, because no one talks about it like it isn’t. (Because no one talks about it at all.)
Painful sex? Really heavy bleeding during menstruation? Odd-smelling or colored discharges? Mysterious lumps? People don’t know what to do about these things and they don’t know where to turn because they’ve been taught that this stuff is gross and not cool to talk about. Disclosing a history of STIs to a partner is a minefield, especially if you have a condition that can’t be cured, but it is possible to protect your partner with safer sex measures.
We’ve resorted to these ridiculous “check your STI status” apps that I get press releases for all the time, promising discretion and the ability to quickly verify results with your date without actually having to have the shamefaced Conversation. Because of course talking about STIs face to face is gross and uncomfortable. And let's talk about how women are burdened with being the ones responsible for birth control and barrier protection, shall we?
Some people have sex! STIs are a potential risk! It’s okay to talk about that, and STIs aren’t anything to be ashamed of, unless, of course, you buy the belief that being sexual is dirty and gross and something you should be punished for. Until we can get over our squeamishness about STIs, we’re going to keep seeing a rise in infection rates – and in shamefaced patients coming to the doctor for treatment far later than they should be because they’re too embarrassed to admit that, hey, they got laid and got a little more than they bargained for.
Riled up about the state of sex education? Why not donate to our pals at Scarleteen, who provide free comprehensive sexual education, counseling, and MORE to young people worldwide.