Are We Too Afraid to Deal With STIs?

There’s a great piece on HuffPo about our continuing reluctance to deal with preventing sexually transmitted infections. Here’s the opening:

Among the many vital health issues not addressed by healthcare reform is the state of our sexual health. There are 19 million new sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections in the United States each year according to the Centers for Disease Control. What does our government spend to prevent this pandemic? One hundred and fifty-one million dollars. That is less than 50 cents per person.

Some of you may already be thinking this doesn’t affect me. Think again. Half of all STDs are among young people ages 15 – 24. They are your child, grandchild, sister, brother, cousin or friend. (And by the way, STDs cost the healthcare system $15.9 billion a year.)

If ever an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of cure, it is true of STDs. Something that weighs considerably less than an ounce can help prevent STDs — a condom. Yes, this lowly, much-maligned piece of latex could save us billions and protect our loved ones. But, we do everything we can to keep them out of the hands of the people who need them most.

By any objective standard and according to the empirical evidence and experiences in other countries, the solution is comprehensive safer sex education and access to supplies. And I agree with the author of the HuffPo piece when he writes:

Most of all, we are sending the absolutely wrong message to young people about sex. We are telling them that they deserve to be punished for having sex because sex is bad. One of the wages of sin is getting a disease, not to mention going to hell. So our sexual health policy is largely dictated by religious beliefs. We place such a low priority on it because we feel guilty, don’t want to discuss it and believe that we are getting what we deserve.

I think that there’s more to unpack here. Yes, many of the attacks on safer sex and comprehensive sex education are based on religious beliefs. Certainly, a lot of the justification for restricting information is grounded in certain religious dogmas that see sex as a threat or as the root of original sin.

But even people who don’t come from these backgrounds have a lot of resistance to providing accurate, non-judgmental information about sex, especially to young people. One reason is that a lot of people have unresolved fears, shames, and wounding around sex and they can’t separate those out from the issue. The idea of talking about safer sex (or sex in general) brings up so many difficult emotions for them that they simply can’t handle it, so they have to shut the conversation down and the most common tools for doing that are anger and shame. Unfortunately, those tend to become self-reinforcing dynamics, so the next generation repeats the cycle. And shaming youth doesn’t put a dent in the STI rates, but it sure does damage a lot of people.

We also have a lot of negative feelings about young people having sex, even when (or especially when) we did much the same thing at those ages. The fact is, young people have sex. Young people have always had sex. Some of your friends when you were 14, 15 or 16 were having sex, whether you were or not and whether you knew about it or not. It’s unrealistic to expect your children to be any different. You don’t have to like something in order to accept it. You don’t have to like the fact that your children have sexual feelings that they want to act on. But until we can accept it, any solutions to whatever problems arise are going to be ineffective or harmful because they’re not based on the facts.

If we want to protect young people, we need to get over ourselves and give them the tools they need to take care of themselves. Yes, that means taking a chance and trusting their willingness and ability to do so. It also means that we need to acknowledge the fact that most of us didn’t get the information and care that we needed. We need to acknowledge the ways in which we were shamed for our sexual desires. We need to deal with the fact that those injuries to our psyches and our sexual selves were real. That’s always part of the process of changing the cycle.

Or we can create the same mess that we were handed and expect the next generation to clean it up. I’d rather help fix the problems that we were handed that pass it along and make it worse. It’s not easy, but at least I can be proud that I tried. What about you?

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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