What we don't know about STIs will kill us

    Morning, kids! While you were sleeping, one of your friends probably got a sexually transmitted infection! Or hey, maybe you weren’t sleeping — maybe it was you.

    But there’s a problem here, and it’s not sleep deprivation. Back on March 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that found that one in four teenage girls has an STI. One out of every four. That’s 2.5 players on a lacrosse team, one between your room and the room next door, and at least one cast member of High School Musical. And we don’t even know about the boys yet.

    How did this happen? We’re smart. We’re supposed to know about these kinds of things. We have sex education, right?

    Well, sort of. But it’s not working. That same report also found that neither the 66 percent of classrooms teaching comprehensive sex-ed, nor the 25 percent teaching abstinence-only, are having a significant effect on reducing those numbers. Not to mention that once you graduate from high school (or, at my public school, once you were above sophomore year), it seems to be assumed that you know all there ever is to know about sex, health and safety, and you’ll never have to be reminded again. But by now, years since, all we remember from high school sex ed is that the rhythm method doesn’t work and that condoms are really fun to flick across the room at each other.

    About two weeks ago, John McCain tried to convince Americans that Barack Obama wants to teach kindergartners about sex. With the presidential candidates casting an ever-wider net of topics to snipe at each other about, you had to know it would get to sex eventually. Unfortunately, sex education is more than just a talking point to wave in front of reactionary voters.

    How America messed up

    So this must be an international catastrophe, right? Kids these days are screwing like rabbits, so it’s no wonder they all have HPV, no? And what about Europe? They’re running around on topless beaches, giving wine to their kids and legalizing prostitution. They must have like, seven STIs each!

    Wrong. As of 2001, the gonorrhea rate of American teens (age 15-19) was more than 74 times higher than that of the Netherlands or France, and the HIV rate was more than three and five times higher, respectively. And that’s not even counting the pregnancy rate (nine times higher than the Netherlands, almost four times greater than France). These numbers are still going up, and that’s no accident. This isn’t because European kids don’t have sex, or because they have herpes-resistant vaginas. This is about education, and knowing the information you need to stay safe. It’s statistics like this that show just how badly we need ads like this sex-ed PSA from Belgium (hint: that’s not Listerine in her mouth).

    Ads like this one are common in European countries. The governments support and sponsor widespread, long-term public education campaigns that use as many forms of media and avenues of influence as possible, from billboards to web sites to the pharmacies where people buy their condoms. The ads are funny and direct and, more importantly, they’re everywhere, instead of hidden in the back pages of magazines and the 1–3 a.m. time slot on Bravo.

    One of the most notable examples of an ad campaign affecting sexual health and habits took place in Uganda between the late ‘80s and mid-’90s when the ABC (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms) dramatically lowered HIV rates in the country, from 15 percent in 1991 to 5 percent in 2001. Similar campaigns implemented in Zambia, Jamaica, Cambodia and several other nations have also seen infection rates fall. The general consensus among Ugandans and foreign analysts is that the combination of the ABC campaign and a widespread, media-based message portraying HIV prevention as an issue of national importance and civic duty, all significantly helped bring about this change.

    So if these kinds of campaigns work, why don’t we have them on this side of the pond?

    The recent push for abstinence education here is a huge reason. Throughout the Bush administration’s tenure, abstinence education has been promoted both here and in the anti-AIDS programs we sponsor in Africa. Programs such as Be The One send the message that “sex is a wonderful thing when it is in the proper context of a healthy, faithful, committed marriage.” And they’re right. There is nothing wrong with teaching abstinence as part of sex ed. It’s still the only way absolutely not to get pregnant or contract an STI.

    Abstinence is great, if you can pull it off. The problem is that most Americans can’t. Seventy-four percent of us have had sex before age 20; and by the time we get married, 95 percent have done the deed. So while abstinence is great to teach, there ain’t a whole lot of it going on.

    And even if people aren’t actually having intercourse, they aren’t staying locked in their room reading the Bible, either. Twenty-four percent of teenage boys and 22 percent of girls who haven’t had sex have had oral sex.

    But we’re still not taking action

    “While abstinence is a public health message that we can all support, it cannot be the only message,” reads a February 5, 2004, press release from Theresa Raphael, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors. “Public health officials are obligated to dwell in the real world and support an approach…that reflects how Americans actually live.”

    Adapting our classes to focus on comprehensive health-based education is an important step, but it won’t solve all of our problems. If we’re going to fix anything, we need to also change the practices of mass-media venues in sexual health campaigns.

    Until just a few years ago, major television networks would only air condom ads late at night, when they assumed no children were watching. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been watching football and baseball since I was about six years old, and those same networks have no qualms about showing seventy zillion Viagra, Cialis and other dirty-old-man-drug commercials during games (not to mention all the half-naked chicks selling beer). I think most young American sports fans find out about erectile dysfunction before we even master long division.

    Even when stations did begin to show condom ads, it was still within or after the prime-time window: after 9 or 10 p.m. Remember that Trojan “evolve” ad from last year — the one where the pig turned into Local Bar Hottie of the Year after he bought a condom? Fox and CBS both refused to air it, even late at night. Why? There was no nudity, no sex (except for maybe the implied kind) and nothing even nearly as horrifying as My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.

    Fox’s reasoning, in a written statement to Trojan, was that “contraceptive advertising must stress health-related uses rather than the prevention of pregnancy.” Funny, because the ad didn’t say anything about either pregnancy or diseases. In fact, the only words in it came at the end: “Evolve. Use a condom every time.”

    And that seems like a pretty good message. The truth is that there aren’t any laws banning or even regulating condom advertising during primetime; the networks just don’t want to show them because they’re afraid of a backlash from viewers.

    This is just irresponsible, plain and simple. Promoting and educating people (not just teenagers) about ways to keep themselves safe is beneficial to our collective welfare and therefore to our economy, our health care system (or lack thereof) and our society. Our government should be fully aware of this and follow the example of those European countries, instead of throwing $176 million annually at abstinence-only programs that don’t work. Our television networks and other media outlets should stop finding poor reasons to avoid showing condom ads when the content of their own programs and even other commercials is consistently more racy. Because letting one quarter of American teenage girls (and who knows how many boys) go through class, hockey practice and prom with an STI is not okay. We as a culture need to stop pretending that sex doesn’t happen and start treating our young people like potential solutions instead of problems.

    Oh, and that study I mentioned at the beginning — want to know why nobody in the news covered it? There was this little scandal going on involving the governor of New York and a hooker. Gotta love the irony. Just more proof that sex sells — except when you’re trying to talk about sex.


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