One in four teen girls has an STD! The rate of STDs in teen boys is rising!

Findings from the Center of Disease Control (CDC) demonstrate that abstinence-only and basic sex education are not working. It's time for a new approach. This approach needs to present an honest, objective view of sexuality, one without fear mongering and without shame. This new way of thinking about sexual behaviors will hopefully reduce the harmful effects of STDs in teens and adults alike.

A 2010 report from the CDC indicates the rate of STDs is rising in teen boys. In 2008, the CDC published the results from a study in which a nationally representative sample of girls ages 12-18 were tested for STDs. Twenty-six percent of girls tested positive for various STDs. Equally troubling, many of the girls did not even know they were infected. Further, many of the girls reported they had never had sexual intercourse. Of the girls that reported having sex, 40% tested positive for at least one STD.

The most common STDs reported in the 2008 study were Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia, Trichomoniasis and Herpes. If left untreated, HPV and Chlamydia can lead to serious health problems, including cervical cancer, infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease. However, if treated early, these common STDs are not inherently damaging. While Herpes is incurable, there are no serious health-related consequences associated with it, aside from possible discomfort caused by outbreaks.

There is a disconnect between where parents think their children are sexually and actual teenage behavior. A recent study from North Carolina State University found that most parents believe their teenage child is not yet interested in sex. The truth is that the average age teens first engage in sex around 17 years of age. Furthermore, STDs can be transmitted through sexual behaviors that do not include intercourse. If parents do not believe that their child is at risk for an STD, they are likely less inclined to take their teen to get screened and treated for them.

Without the support of their parents, teens are left to their own devices to seek medical treatment. Even with access to such care, seeking medical attention, either proactively or when presented with symptoms, is a feat requiring a great level of maturity. Additionally, the various erroneous and widespread beliefs regarding STDs further complicate this process. One such erroneous thought is that STDs are only contracted through sexual intercourse, a belief disproven by the 2008 CDC study. The other is a more general view of human sexuality, namely that STDs are an aberration of human sexuality. However, quite the opposite is true. STDs are a normal part of human sexuality. Yet these beliefs are so prevalent that a 2001 study by the CDC found that 89% of girls thought they were at little to no risk of contracting and STD.

While it is logical to believe that teaching teenagers that the best way to avoid STDs is by abstaining from sex, studies show that abstinence-only education have paradoxical outcomes. One such study found that teens who have taken virginity pledges are just as likely to have sex as teens who did not take the pledge. These teens are also more likely to take part in high risk activities such as not using condoms or other forms of birth control. Because sex in the teenage years is a normal part of human development, the "just say no" approach does not work.

We need to counteract the stigma associated with STDs. Even in the most comprehensive sex education programs, STDs are often presented as a dark side of sex. A thing a person dare not ever have. To illustrate how common the shame is surrounding STDs, one need only look to Herpes. While up to 80% of adults have Oral Herpes (aka, cold sores), the mere thought of contracting Genital Herpes has led some people to thoughts of suicide. Similar virus, similar nuisance, and similar harmless side effects. However, the one on the mouth is viewed as okay and normal; while the one on the genitals is detested.

The reality is that there always exists a chance of contracting an STD through sexual contact, even with the use of a condom and even when there is no intercourse. Similarly there is a high chance of contracting a cold or the flu during the winter when one is in close contact with others, such as on a bus or in a classroom. Illnesses and infections are part of life.

Just imagine what life would look like if people viewed STDs as a normal part of fooling around. Without fear of tarnishing his reputation, a teenage boy could tell his partner "you may not want to get too close to me this week; I'm clearing up a case of Chlamydia." Or a teen girl may view getting tested twice a year as routine as she does a teeth cleaning. If the shame surrounding STDs is diminished, more people will be willing to get tested regularly and to disclose when they have an infection to current or potential partners.

Teaching teenagers about the benefits of abstinence and how to use condoms properly are important messages. However, they are messages teens have been receiving for decades and the rate of STDs are astonishingly high. Something has to change. Thinking about STDs as a likely risk of sex (itself a natural human behavior), a risk that is common and normal, will help to ultimately reduce the horrible side effects of untreated STDs and work to reduce the overall rate of contraction.

About the Author

Kathryn Stamoulis Ph.D.

Kathryn Stamoulis, Ph.D., teaches at psychology at Hunter College, and specializes in adolescent and sexual development.

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