Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Quarter of Teenage Girls Test Positive For STDs

I'm just going to sit here and sip my coffee and let that title, and that statistic, sink in for a moment. A quarter of teenage girls test positive for sexually transmitted diseases. Go ahead and ponder it, I'll be here when you're done. Surely, you're thinking, it's not that bad! This must be sensationalistic reporting, or perhaps a matter of mistaking statistics or numbers or...

Okay, I admit. I stretched the truth a smidge to get the alarming title. In reality, the first national study of four common sexually transmitted diseases (chlamydia, HPV, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes) found that one in four teenage girls are infected with at least one of these diseases.

Oh. Clarifying that didn't really make it any better, did it?

Let's look at the numbers before we talk further, shall we? Always good to have those in front of us, whenever talking about straight up statistical analysis. According to the New York Times,
838 participants in the study were chosen at random with standard statistical techniques. Of the women asked, 96 percent agreed to submit vaginal swabs for testing. Extrapolating from the findings, 3.2 million teenage women were infected with at least one of the four diseases [emphasis added]. Because the new survey was based on direct testing, it was more reliable than analyses derived from data that doctors and clinics sent to the diseases center through state and local health departments.

To say that this suggests abstinence-only education is a complete and utter failure is, I think, a healthy understatement at best. And the numbers suggest something else, as well: abstinence-only education also hits minority communities harder, doing more damage, than the white communities. In this particular study, nearly half of the 14-19 year old black women had at least one of the four STDs being looked at, while only 20% of the white girls were similarly infected. Among these infected women, nearly 15% had multiple infections - of these four. Who knows what other infections were also piggybacked on top of the rest.

And of course, these infections all have the ability to present invisibly, for both men and women, meaning that not only is there a potential for continued widespread infection, but that it's very likely both women and men will end up with fertility problems down the line, thanks to the scarring that these diseases can cause (especially when they shift into pelvic inflammatory disease).

I'm not sure how people can look at these numbers and see anything other than earthshattering disaster for abstinence-only education. Something like a billion dollars has been spent on something that conclusively does not work. Not only does it not work, it is putting our teens, our children, at serious and significant health risk, not only for the immediate but for their future health, as well.

I've taught sex ed, and I know it can be uncomfortable. I've had to teach sex ed to my relatives, so I know how that can be even worse than sitting down with strangers. It can be embarrassing. Questions can be asked that you don't want to answer, or don't know how to answer - but we, socially, culturally, religiously, politically, need to get over it. Comprehensive sexuality education doesn't have to be about giving permission to have sex whenever; it's very much a whole body/being approach to teaching that doesn't just emphasize safe sex, but it also can (and should) emphasize things like waiting for what is morally right for the individual, cover things like protecting yourself from abuse, being comfortable in your own gendered skin, taking care of your plumbing; comprehensive sex ed is not about encouraging orgies, it's about encouraging responsibility and agency. We have to embrace this - and if we don't, then as a society, those infections are just as much our responsibility as it is the teenagers actually having the sex.


Oh, as a side note: the researchers in this particular situation did something I'd really love to see more often. While the survey was anonymous and they have no way of knowing which women were infected, they did inform all participants of the finding results and treatment recommendations via a password protected phone number, and they sent multiple reminders to the women who did not call in to the line. This keeps confidentiality, while still going well above and beyond what most researchers seem to do in these situations - it would be great if this could become the norm, rather than a pleasant surprise in a completely depressing article.


Sue Trinidad said...

Nice post, Kelly. Agree--looks to be a good, responsibly done study.

For me, though, yet another depressing point about this article and the subsequent coverage of the issue in the media/blogdom is the exclusive focus on girls ... as if they alone are the reservoirs of STDs. Howzabout the boys who are presumably involved in the spread of these conditions? I understand the study was of women; I just think that responsible media coverage might have mentioned--somewhere--that many of these infected women are likely having sex with men...and that some of them probably weren't infected before that!

Evelyn said...

I, too, think abstinence-only education bears a lot of the blame for this alarming statistic.

I have a coworker who refuses to believe that the number is that high, that there are even that many girls having sex that young.
Of course, many of the women participating in the study said they weren't having sex, which is even more alarming, because it suggests that young people aren't aware of the risks of sex if it isn't heterosexual vaginal intercourse.

I wrote about it a bit on my blog, here

Helen said...

I'm blessed to have come from a family where we "got over it" when it came to talking about sexuality within my genaration. Mum did a fantastic sex education job with us all.

The next genaration has not only had good sex education, but we also have an agreement amongst siblings that any question asked by another's child is answered with complete and frank honesty appropriate to the age of the child.

I have a fond memory of walking through a red light district with my 12 and 13 y/o nieces, and them seeing a rather impressive pair of crotchless and nipple peeping lingere on a shop dummy. After much giggling, while we were having a drink in a cafe, the girls asked me about whether "boys liked you dressed like that"

We had a quite intellegent conversation about personal preferences, sexual boundaries, and overall a woman's right to chose what she does with her body.

So far we've got 6 of the children in the family to majority with no teen pregnancies.

I know (because I was asked for my opinion on the choices) that three of the girls are using both hormonal contraceptives and condoms.

If families start talking about it and educating, then the shame/embarrasment/fear factor disappears within 1 genaration.

So lets get talking


Anonymous said...

Why blame sex education classes when the real lessons these young people receive come in the form of music videos, tv shows and magazines such as "Cosmo for Kids". There's money to be made in those fertile fields-and don't forget medicines-Gardasil is being touted for 9 year olds.What lies ahead in the gene pool when CHILDREN, not young adults, become the victims of the present
mind set that says "Do it-something will surely come along and protect you from the consequences."

We, as a society, model the behavior we wish for our children. If we wish our children to think before they have sex, to wait until they are emotionally as well as physically ready, and, thus, to cut down on the numbers of teenagers with STDs and unexpected pregnancies then EACH OF US must model the behaviors of sex within the boundaries of loving, committed relationships and demand others do also.

Kelly Hills said...

Anonymous - well, because I think the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education. People have been claiming that culture is the downfall of morality for a lot longer than there's been rap music, and I find it as unlikely when the examples are from the 1880s as from the 1980s (or now).

Secondly, I strongly, strongly support vaccinating both girls and boys with Gardasil, and think that 9 is a great target age for the vaccination. Lump it in with the rest - I don't know of a kid who asks what their vaccinations are, let alone decides that they've had a tetanus shot, so they can go play with rusty nails. (So I'm not seeing the link between getting the Gardasil shot and sexual activity, either.)

And while I do agree that we need to model healthy sexual behaviour in order to have children mimic it, I think that includes things like speaking frankly and honestly about sexuality and sex education, and how to protect yourself from disease. I also do not think it means preaching a moral code that not everyone - adult or children - will agree with (namely, that sex should only happen inside a loving and committed relationship), so I'm certainly not going to make any such demands of others. Consenting sexual relationships between rational agents - that's my one requirement for who should/could be having sex. I very strongly believe that the minute we begin to load the restrictions down with values that are not shared by all adults or teens, we begin the alienation process that allows unprotected sex to run rampant. The people involved dismiss the moral code being preached, and dismiss the rest of the message along with it.

Christine in DC said...

Good point. I found this after googling the statistic after arguing (okay, discussing) contraception with a Catholic priest. He brought it up as an example of how contraception has caused problems--huh?