The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has sounded an alarm: Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea, have reached an all-time high, and half of the nearly 20 million new cases reported each year affect those ages 15 to 24, according to the agency’s most recent report on the subject.
The CDC has called for increased funding to beef up the detection, prevention, testing, and treatment mechanisms for STIs, most of which can be treated by antibiotics but can also cause bodily harm if left untreated. But for sexual health advocates like Jenelle Marie Davis, founder of the STD Project and spokesperson for Positive Singles, those factors are only part of the issue: Sex education programs need revision in order to become much more comprehensive and should clearly address both the risk of infection and their prevention. Unfortunately, Davis says, this key facet of the sex conversation is lacking in most curricula (the CDC has also addressed the issue). STIs have been around forever and not addressing them head-on only serves to malign them and continue to shroud them, and those affected by them, in secrecy and shame.
“We keep focusing on the negative — on the alarmist aspect of what could happen if we get an STI, and, yes, that is a reality that we have to be cognizant of, but we also need the education that teaches about protection, about prevention, about testing, so that people can speak openly to their partners about these things,” Davis says. “That conversation would provide comprehensive knowledge that would then lead to more testing and increased diagnosis.”
The increase in the number of reported STI cases may be a positive development, in Davis’s view, as it shows more people are getting tested. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) covers tests for both gonorrhea and chlamydia.
In general, sex education programs are also moving away from the abstinence-based model that was a hallmark of former president George W. Bush’s administration, and as federal funding for these curricula has been peeled back, many schools are offering more comprehensive sex ed.
But according to Rebecca Maynard, professor of education and social policy at University of Pennsylvania, who has conducted studies on abstinence-based and comprehensive sex education programs, both programs actually contain many of the same elements and overlap, with students of each exhibiting the same sexual behaviors. And both programs sorely fail in their approaches to risk.
“I don’t think we do as much as we could or should to help people understand how do you get STIs, how can you prevent it, what are the implications if you do get them,” Maynard says. “It still is a real shock to people that they could contract an infection when they are 15 but it could have no presenting symptoms until they are 30. We need to bring these issues into the open.”
That also means communicating the all-important notion that despite risks, there are great rewards to sex.
“Yes, if you’re sexually active, you can get an STI or have an unplanned pregnancy, but in a consensual and healthy sexual relationship, there are positive chemicals, it is good for your physical health, it’s great cardio,” Davis says. “This can all be communicated in comprehensive sex education without meaning that you’re telling the high school population to go out there and have sex right away. You’re just telling them to be responsible, empowering them and letting them know that there are both risks and rewards.”