On March 11, the Associated Press reported a startling federal study showing at least one in four teenage girls in America has a sexually transmitted disease.
The news is shocking, and suggests this country is on the extreme wrong track when it comes to reproductive health and sex education. Three million of our daughters, sisters, nieces and granddaughters may suffer from illnesses which are dangerous, sometimes deadly, often incurable and almost always preventable, all because we live in a society still completely incapable of speaking frankly about sexuality and personal health. The risk to our community is alarming.
Beyond the still-alarming threat of AIDS and HIV (which the study did not examine) are lower profile but still threatening diseases, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can lead to cervical cancer (18 percent of teenage girls in the study had HPV, the AP reported); Chlamydia, which, while often symptom-less, could threaten infertility, but can be treated (it afflicts 4 percent of girls in the study); and herpes, an incurable ailment that isn’t life-threatening but can leave blisters, endanger newborn children and carry a heavy social stigma (although incurable, herpes symptoms can be treated).
An important reality about these ailments is how easily preventable they are and how important early detection is. With a vaccine available for HPV it is unconscionable that we put young women at risk of cervical cancer simply out of some antiquated fear that vaccinating them against the disease would be seen as a tacit approval of their sexuality. Likewise, the heavy insistence on abstinence-only sex education courses in school for fear that other approaches, such as education about condoms and the risks of unprotected sex, could also be seen as encouraging sexuality has put a generation at risk.
It isn’t just young girls we have endangered. We have also endangered our sons, brothers, nephews and grandsons. We have endangered our future. By shunning sex education to whispers and the hope that individually parents — often also the product of poor sexual education — will speak frankly to their children about their health and the responsibilities that come with emerging sexuality we have left our children to fend for themselves when faced with rising hormones.
We need to stop treating our bodies as if they are foreign, threatening places and our desire as something to be ashamed of, and we need to stop reinforcing those ideas in our kids. Instead, we need to spend the billions we spend on abstinence-only education to instead assure our daughters (and sons) that sexuality is natural, but can be dangerous if the proper precautions are not taken. We also need to reinforce the idea that it is OK for young women to say no to their lovers or to insist upon less risky practices. Only when they feel confident that they won’t be ostracized for asserting their rights and for communicating with their partners the limits they set themselves will progress be made.
Meanwhile, as a society we need to end the double standard wherein sexuality is a taboo subject for discussion, yet one for which responsible practices are never represented in media, schools or families.