Since April is STD Awareness month, I’ve been thinking a lot about sexual health and my experience with STD prevention growing up. My Catholic school days didn’t teach me whole lot about prevention beyond “Don’t have sex!” and even in public high school, my Life Skills class spent a few hours on the subject at best. One day of the accelerated summer school course was dedicated to sex education, and all I really remember from that day was practicing how to put a condom on a water bottle. As far as my parents went, the few awkward conversations we had were all about not getting knocked up. I lived in utter fear of turning up pregnant but not of contracting the clap.
I was however fortunate enough to have a phenomenal OB/GYN who I first met at the tender age of twelve. She was the physician from whom I’d sought a second opinion about severe lower abdominal pain when my general practitioner insisted for months that it was just cramps (read all about that experience here). She was patient and understanding and respectful of the fact that I felt more comfortable in our appointments without a parent in the room. She answered all of my questions, asked plenty of probing ones herself and always made sure to go over best practices for preventing pregnancy and infection. Not all teens are that fortunate, which I didn’t know at that juncture.
It finally sank in for me at age 21, just after college when I had no health insurance for a short period of time. I’d gone to my local Planned Parenthood to take advantage of the wonderful PACT program that gave my broke, no-coverage having butt access to no-cost reproductive healthcare. I waited in the lobby during that first visit for well over two hours and observed that the clinic was filled with teenaged girls. I thought, “They may have been having sex but at least they’re being smart about it.”
Then I caught bits and pieces of disheartening conversations. I heard one girl giving another the old schpeel about not being able to get pregnant if the guy just pulls out. Three wide-eyed girls on the far side of the room were being lectured by a slightly older fourth, explaining to these bewildered females that condoms can’t 100% protect you from herpes. Looking around the room, I saw a lot of panicked expressions. Some were undoubtedly there for preventive purposes but others were very much there for an after-the-fact solution. I realized I was privileged as a teen to have had access to important informing about contraception and disease prevention as well as a trusted source, in this case my doctor, from which to seek advice.
We owe it to our youth to give them the tools to make informed decisions about their health and to feel safe in voicing their questions or opinions about it. I believe it is this lack of resources and education that are largely responsible for the following statistics as outlined by the National Centers for Disease Control:
• Half of all STDs are in people under the age of 25 even though the Under 25 age group only represents about a quarter of the people having sex
• Undiagnosed STDs caused an estimated 24,000 women to become infertile in 2013
• Many cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and other STDs such as HPV and Herpes go unreported to the CDC each year; this mean that these statistics don’t capture the entire story and represent only a fraction of the real STD burden.
These statistics are alarming and we need to get out in front of them. This is easier said than done in a society where health equity has not been achieved. As the CDC site states, “Factors such as poverty, large gaps between the rich and the poor, few jobs, and low education levels can make it more difficult for people to stay sexually healthy.” With this sobering fact in mind, we each have to do what we can with the tools available to us. Some of the basics start at home; here are a few of my thoughts.
Earn their trust and make them earn yours.
I always felt like my parents didn’t trust me. It wasn’t even always about what I was or was not allowed to do, but what I was or wasn’t allowed to know. Feeling that I wouldn’t be trusted no matter what I said or did was disheartening. I stopped coming to my parents with my concerns because I felt like I was talking to a wall.
Be the source of their information.
One sad consequence of the loss of trust between parent and child, in my humble observance, is that the child then looks to other sources for information. In the best case scenario, that other source is a trusted relative or close family friend, perhaps an older sibling, a counselor or a healthcare professional. In the worst case scenario, that source is an ill-advised peer or the big black hole that is the internet (or if you were a child of the 80s like me, perhaps an Encyclopedia Britannic)a. The point is that when kids want information, they are going to get it from somewhere. It is up to us as responsible adults to proactively ask the tough questions, have those difficult talks, and share that invaluable information before our youth get false or incomplete information someplace else.
Listen without judgement.
Touching again on the trust issue, it was difficult growing up in a house where my parents were so uncomfortable talking about sex because I was terrified of admitting to them that I had questions. On the few occasions where we started to talk about sex, I got angry, defensive lectures instead of a calm attempts at discussion. I felt like a heathen for bringing up the subject, so I just didn’t after a while. We have to stop shaming our youth when it comes to sex. It is neither healthy nor constructive for the parent or the child.
With STDs as with so many other things, the adage holds true that knowledge is power. It’s time we spread that knowledge more comprehensively across all races, classes, and genders and close the information gap. Like with any important cause, we must champion it every day and not just on the ones that land in the month designated for extra attention. Certain kinds of awareness need to be a year-long occurrence, and this is certainly one of them.
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