First Person: My first visit at Planned Parenthood I was waiting for the nurse in the exam room when my eyes came across a chart on the door. The chart illustrated how if a person has sex with five people, you have also come into contact with any potential diseases that any five people those five people have had sex with, etc.
In the end, even though you have only had sex with five people, you may have come into contact with diseases from any of the 100 people or more. It was a scary chart, as it illustrated appropriately how even if you have only sex with one or two people, you’ve really came into contact with many more than one or two people. But it was a needed chart, and a chart that should be displayed in health classes across the nation. (Here are similar charts: Chart One & Chart Two.)
An alarming number of schools are still teaching abstinence-only programs. The problem is they don’t work. A 2007 study that was published in the British Medical Journal found that abstinence-only programs didn’t change sexual behaviors or lower number of sexual partners. In addition, in 2007, a federally-funded evaluation of a sample of these programs concluded that the age of first sex and numbers of sexual partners was not different in those in these programs versus other programs (Siecus).
My concern is these programs are actually more damaging. Teenagers who are unable to go to their parents or school about protection will turn to their peers, who will often give them incorrect information. This is unacceptable. If not taught how to properly use protection, young adults will most likely fail at adequately protecting themselves from STDs.
And they do fail. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that at least one in four teenage American girls is carrying an STD (MSNBC). That means for teens sitting in a class with 12 girls, three of them carry and STD. That’s not even counting the boys in the class.
The reason unprotected sexual activity is scary is because often, there may be no symptoms. HPV is a common STD that does not often show symptoms, especially in men. The strains of HPV that are high risk especially usually don’t display external symptoms (Scarleteen). Although the most common side effect of HPV is genital warts, it can also lead to cervical cancer. For teenage girls, this is an even bigger problem, as cervical cell development may not be complete at their age, which makes them even more likely to be infected (Scarleteen). Cervical cancer can be fatal and affect fertility. Pretty severe for a disease that may not show symptoms and is so easily spread.
HPV is so common, perhaps because it often shows no symptoms. For those who know they have it, they may choose to still have sex since they won’t be “caught.” Others simply aren’t aware they carry and are passing on HPV. By time a person may discover they have HPV, they may have already infected a number of people. It’s simply best to be cautious when hooking up with a new partner. Did you know that up to 75 percent of sexually active people will have at least one HPV infection in their life (Scarleteen ) ? Seventy-five percent!
There’s no way to get rid of the HPV infection any faster, either. HPV is not curable and those infected simply have to play the waiting game while waiting on the body to clear the virus. While medication is available to eliminate warts and warts can be frozen off, there is no medication that will kill the virus in the body. Though the majority of infections eventually clear on their own within two years, the virus can still stay in the body even after warts are gone (Scarleteen). Even once the virus clears, it may be hard, if not impossible, to know if the virus is gone or not for those infected.
So how do we get young adults to protect themselves? You can’t argue with some of their arguments for not using condoms: They’re inconvenient, they don’t feel as good, they’re hard to remember in the moment. However, parents and educators have really got to pound it into kids’ heads how important condoms are and how “uncomfortable” it would be to have warts growing on their genitals or to never be able to have a child versus having to wear a condom. Also, parents should consider the HPV vaccine for their child as a back-up, but let them know that it doesn’t protect against all strains of HPV and that they shouldn’t think of the vaccine as a replacement for condoms.
Siecus, What the Research Says…Abstinence Only Until Marriage Programs
Associated Press/MSNBC, 1 in 4 Teen Girls Has Sexually Transmitted Disease
Scarleteen, The STI files: HPV Scarleteen, Love the Glove: 10 Reasons to Use Condoms You Might Not Have Heard Yet