Not Everything About Sex Is Sexy


This weekend, "Baby Mama" came to movie screens across the country, skyrocketing to top release almost the moment it opened. That's no surprise. With popular stars and a huge advertising campaign, it takes a light-hearted look at infertility, surrogacy, pregnancy and other aspects of sexuality and reproduction that are easy to talk about, and even smile at, in our country today.

Last week, Congress took a look at some aspects of sex and sexuality that are hardly ever mentioned in polite conversation, much less in popular movies. I'm talking about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which afflict millions of teens in this country, whether they know it yet or not. It's about time Congress paid attention.

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a study on STIs that can only be described as shocking. It found that at least one in four teenage girls – more than three million teens – has a sexually transmitted infection. The incidence is even higher in some populations, and includes nearly half of African American teenage girls.

At briefings held last week on Capitol Hill during National Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month, sponsored by the American Social Health Association, National Council of Women's Organizations and National Partnership for Women & Families, in cooperation with Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, medical experts from the CDC, academia, and state and local health departments examined the health effects of STIs on women. They confirmed that the effects are sometimes severe and long-lasting – including infertility as well as cervical cancer – and HIV/AIDS.

Advocates are urging lawmakers to make the new CDC study a wake-up call, and find ways to give teenagers better information, more accessible screening, and more and better treatment options. We're demanding that they finally put aside the ideology that has often driven and constrained sex education and family planning policies and programs in our country for too long.

To public health experts, the new CDC data are less a surprise than the inevitable outcome of decisions that have fueled this epidemic and put a generation of teens at risk.

In one example, we underfund family planning clinics and throw obstacles in front of teenagers who want access to reproductive health care so they can protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

In another example, we fund the abstinence-only sexuality education programs that we know don't work. An ever-growing body of evidence shows that these programs are not effective at delaying sexual initiation, preventing unwanted pregnancy, and reducing STIs. Yet, federal and state governments have invested more than $1.3 billion in them since 1997 – and those funds continue to flow.

We need the federal government to stop funding the abstinence-only programs that are failing our young people, and instead use those resources for comprehensive sexuality education programs that promote abstinence but also give teens information to help them make responsible choices, reduce unintended pregnancy, and stop the spread of STIs.

There's no time to waste. STI screening, vaccination and other prevention strategies for sexually active teens and women should be among our highest public health priorities. It also makes good economic sense; investing in this kind of prevention would save more than $8 billion per year in direct health care costs.

Change won't happen until we break the silence on this. We need to keep talking about these issues until we put in place programs and policies that make the health of our young people the highest priority. Congresswoman Jones has introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives (H. Res. 1131) and Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) is poised to introduce a companion measure in the Senate that would do just that — call on the federal government, states and localities — as well as parents — to focus greater attention on the prevention, screening and treatment of STIs.

This is nothing less than a public health crisis. But the good news is it's one we can begin to address. Unless we do, the face of infertility in this country may change from that of Baby Mama Tina Fey playing a career-driven woman, to that of a young woman who didn't have the information to avoid an STI, or access to treatment for it, when she was a teen. It's hard to imagine any of us flocking to local theaters to smile at that.

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    Well done. There is an STD epidemic in this country and the current administration is simply burying its head in the sand by promoting ideology over science-based prevention. Time to do something about it. Great article.