When it comes to talking about sex, sexuality and sexual health, we’ve come a long way – in some respects. Today, the reality of sexual assault on college campuses, abortion rights, gender and sexual identity and access to contraception are part of an important national dialogue, one that is both political and personal.
At the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), our definition of sexual health is, by necessity, broad. Among other things, sexual health encompasses access to sexual health information, education and medical care; being informed and empowered regarding pregnancy and family planning; preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and accessing appropriate care and treatment; and being able to communicate about sexual health with not only sexual partners but healthcare providers, too.
That last part – the communication piece – is one of the most important, but it’s easily neglected and taken for granted. That has real implications: There’s a continuing and troubling increase in the spread of STDs, especially among younger people. In fact, this year alone there will be 20 million new cases of STDs, about half of which will occur in sexually active people ages 15-24. Yet fewer than 12 percent of young people said they were tested in the past year. This low testing rate is particularly startling at a time when 58 percent of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse.
Let’s talk about STDs
One in two sexually active people will get an STD by age 25, yet the conversation about STDs and proper testing remains in the dark largely because the topic carries too much fear, shame, and embarrassment. This unfortunate and needless stigma means too many people won’t discuss the topic with their healthcare providers, much less their sexual partners and friends.
Imagine if people were reluctant to talk about pneumonia or bronchitis! Of course, STDs don’t always make themselves obviously known – many of them don’t have obvious symptoms – but they’re no less important than other infections. For example, untreated chlamydia can put a woman at risk for pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a condition that can lead to tubal pregnancy, chronic pain and infertility. At least 15 percent of American women who are infertile can attribute it to PID. This is one of the many reasons we can’t afford to allow shame and stigma to keep STD testing in the dark.
Breaking down barriers to testing
It’s critical to educate young people about STDs and that getting tested can be quick, easy, confidential, cheap or even free, but that’s only part of the solution. If we want young people to feel empowered to take care of their sexual health, we have to change the culture that dictates the way we talk – or rather, don’t talk – about STDs.
That means removing denial, uncertainty and shame so we can all have better conversations about sexual health, especially with youth (it’s also important to encourage young people to have frank sexual health discussions with one another). At ASHA, we’re doing that by amplifying the messaging so these conversations become commonplace, and we’re communicating to young people about sexual health and why it simply can’t be ignored. Just as we support everyone’s right to make a conscious, consensual choice to have sex, we also want to convey a sense of empowerment in taking charge of their health and choosing to get tested for STDs. Now that’s worth shouting from the rooftops.
That’s why last month — during STD Awareness Month — we launched a stigma-shattering initiative called “YES Means TEST” that aims to normalize STD testing among young people by sparking dialogue and encouraging them to focus on their sexual health. We’ve got a long way to go, but if we can get more people to embrace ownership of their sexual health, we’re making progress. For more information, visit “YES Means TEST” online, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.
The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1914 to improve the health of individuals, families, and communities, with a focus on educating about and preventing sexually transmitted diseases. ASHA’s educational web sites include: www.ashasexualhealth.org, www.iwannaknow.org (teen site), and www.quierosaber.org (Spanish language site).