November 24, 2009

Sexually Transmitted Infection Rates Continue To Rise In The US

Sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates continue to rise in the US, according to a recently released study by the Centers for Disease Control.

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Sexually transmitted infections (STI) rates continue to rise in the US, according to a recently released study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Recent CDC Study

Amidst the health care reform debate that continues in Washington, DC, the CDC recently released a report noting that sexually transmitted infection rates continue to soar, and are still increasing, in the United States.  A few findings from the report:

  • 1.2 million cases of chlamydia were reported in 2008, up from 1.1 million in 2007.
  • Nearly 337,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported.
  • Adolescent girls 15 to 19 years had the most chlamydia and gonorrhea cases of any age group at 409,531.
  • Blacks, who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 71 percent of reported gonorrhea cases and almost half of all chlamydia and syphilis cases in 2008.  Black women 15 to 19 had the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
  • 13,500 syphilis cases were reported in 2008, an almost 18 percent increase from 2007.
  • 63 percent of syphilis cases were among men who have sex with men.
  • Syphilis rates among women increased 36 percent from 2007 to 2008.

Sexuality Education And Sexual Health

The report does not explicitly discuss sexuality education, or “sex ed”, but what is implied is that sex ed has been failing to provide young people with the knowledge and resources necessary to maintain a healthy and pleasurable sex life.

This is largely due to the pervasiveness of abstinence-only education; when youth are only told “don’t have sex… until you’re married” without being told what to do if you decide to have sex sooner, they’re not equipped to make safe and healthy decisions when that day comes, even if they do wait until they’re married!

It appears that funding for sex education is now going nearly-exclusively toward comprehensive sex ed, curricula that openly discusses sex, sexuality, and sexual health, yet that still notes that abstinence is the absolute safest way to avoid health consequences for having sex.  But, there continues to be opposition to this plan, with the often-stated concern that teaching children about sex and sexuality will lead them to do it before they’re supposed to (a point in their lives that is largely determined by others, rather than themselves: when they’re in a married heterosexual relationship).

However, research comparing abstinence-only and comprehensive (or “abstinence-plus”) sex ed programs finds that abstinence education does little, if anything; in some cases, students who received abstinence-only sexuality education delay their first sexual experience for a few months longer than those who received comprehensive sex ed, but their rates of STIs are much higher and their rates of condom and other contraceptive use are much lower because they were never taught about such things in sex ed.

Sexual Health Disparities and Inequality

As a sociologist who studies sexuality, I’m interested in the way that sexual health disparities tend to align perfectly with other forms of inequality.

As I noted earlier in the statistics from the CDC report, Black people, women, adolescents, and men who have sex with men (MSM, whereas we cannot assume a gay or bisexual identity for these men), have some higher rates of STIs than their privileged, majority group counterparts (i.e., compared to whites, men, adults, and heterosexuals).

We see that those who face prejudice and discrimination on the basis of race, gender, age, and sexual orientation are also the ones who have worse health in general and sexual health in particular.  We can even say that these forms of inequality, racism, sexism, ageism, and homophobia, are largely to blame for these inequalities: discrimination in the health care system, less access to health care, poorer (both in quality and funding) schools and the subsequent poorer quality in sexuality education, just to name a few.

The CDC even notes that a part of the solution to addressing racial disparities in sexual health is to address poverty in the US.  Further, according to the work of Jessica Fields, a sociologist at San Francisco State University, even when students do receive comprehensive sexuality education, the images they see and the content surround the lives and sexualities of white, able-bodied, heterosexual people; in her book Risky Lessons: Sex Education and Social Inequality, she notes that people of color, people with disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people do not see images of themselves, nor do they hear content that pertains to their lives and sexualities.

It’s no wonder that these are some of the groups that also have higher rates of STIs.

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  • Michelle Sobel

    It's depressing to see these numbers as federal and state funding for STD clinics continues to shrink. LA county's free C/G kit distribution program adds a glimmer of hope as do leading Health 2.0 consumer initiatives like These sites are looking beyond white/hetero populations.

  • Samantha Goodwin

    I'm a teenage girl from Canada and sexual education is one of the most beneficial programs for young teens. Not only do we have much lower rates of teen pregnancy but STD's are also avoided thanks to learning about SAFE SEX. I cannot believe that children are only taught about being abstinent in the US, believe it or not, there are kids out there who are 14-15 and want to have sex. The vast majority of the time when a Canadian teen chooses to have pre-martial sex they are aware of the risks (like that reallllly important one regarding how female girls aged 15-19 are at the highest risk for becoming fertile and therefore even if it is your first time, odds are you will become pregnant) which allows them to take the actions necessary to prevent those risks (condoms, birth control, nuva ring, etc). I learned about sex ed from grade 6 – 10 and by being educated about it it has led me to have a safe and healthy sexual relationship with my boyfriend (once again…believe it or not, 17 year old girls have sex…we just dont get pregnant because we use condoms and birth control)