April is STD Awareness Month, and GYT (Get Yourself Tested), a national campaign dedicated to advocating for the testing and treatment of STIs, is in full swing. GYT is a partnership between the American College Health Association, Kaiser Family Foundation, National Coalition of STD Directors, MTV, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Why do we have a whole month calling attention to STIs and sexual health? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans in 2016 were infected with over two million new cases of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia — the highest number of these sexually transmitted diseases ever reported. In Santa Barbara County, STI rates are also at an all-time high, affecting the student populations of Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara; reported cases of gonorrhea almost tripled between 2013 and 2015, while chlamydia increased 22.6 percent. So why are STIs at an all-time high in the United States? It’s not simply a matter of increased sexual activity, or even personal apathy towards safe sex. The answer lies in both the prevention and treatment of STIs: how the U.S. approaches sex education, and the amount of funding allocated to clinics and healthcare programs that diagnose and treat these diseases.
According to Guttmacher Institute, only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education. Many sex education programs stress the dangers of unintended pregnancy more so than contracting STIs, and many courses focus exclusively on heterosexual sex. A lack of adequate sex education in schools may be a significant factor contributing to the rise of sexually transmitted infections in young people; in 2015, the largest number of chlamydia infections and half of all gonorrhea cases reported in the U.S. were found in people ages 15 to 24. The significant increase in STIs in the United States reflects a need for more inclusive, accurate, and open sex education curriculum in public schools as a preventative strategy to protect the sexual health of young adults.
Planned Parenthood is an organization that has been dedicated to meeting this need by providing comprehensive sexual education in K-12 programs that covers important topics such as human development, relationships, personal skills and decision making, sexual behavior, sexual health, and society and culture. Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest provider of sex education, reaching about 1.5 million people a year, 64 percent of whom are middle school and high school aged youth. More importantly, Planned Parenthood provides essential sex education in an intersectional and inclusive way; the organization has peer education programs for priority populations, LGBTQ-focused programs, and health educators who address sex education and sexual and reproductive health care in the Latinx community. If you’re not sure where to go for testing or treatment, Planned Parenthood is always an option!
In addition to a lack of attention directed at prevention of unsafe sexual behaviors, issues with the treatment of STIs in the United States have also contributed to the increase in STI rates. Less public funding means fewer STI clinics that can effectively diagnose and treat sexual health issues and play an important role in limiting disease transmission. The more difficult these clinics are to reach, the more difficult it will be to treat STIs and stop them from spreading. One study found that in 2013, half of patients visiting STD clinics were unwilling to use their health insurance to cover the cost of their visit, either because of cost or privacy concerns. This reflects the lack of access to sexual healthcare that many Americans face due to economic constraints, in addition to the stigma surrounding STIs. The staggering increase in STIs that we’ve seen in the past few years is not only caused from a lack of preventative care, but also reflects a larger problem of accessing affordable and adequate treatment for these infections.
The solution to rising STI rates involves multiple components: comprehensive sexual education, like the intersectional sex education programs offered by Planned Parenthood, and more funding directed towards clinics and healthcare providing STI treatment. These improvements in the prevention and treatment of STIs will not only lower rates of contraction, but also decrease the stigmas associated with sexually transmitted infections and encourage Americans to get tested more frequently.
So how can you take care of your own sexual health? While recent STI increases reflect larger issues with sexual education and healthcare in the United States, it is essential to get tested frequently and know your status. Getting tested for STIs is quick, easy, painless, and confidential! Planned Parenthood believes that all of us — regardless of race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, country of origin, faith, and immigrant or refugee status, deserve their sex life to be healthy, shame free, and safe. We can all do our part to end the stigma associated with STIs by talking openly about sexual health. In honor of STD Awareness Month, get yourself talking, and get yourself tested!
Molly Silvestrini is a Community Engagement Intern with Planned Parenthood Central Coast.