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A Quarter of Teenage Girls Test Positive For STDs

Posted Aug 24 2008 9:54pm
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.
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