This article is published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) as part of our joint series on STD Awareness.
One in two sexually active people will get an STD by age 25, but most won’t even know it. Just as abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy, the only way to be sure of your STD status is to get tested. April is the time to do it—STD Awareness Month.
Approximately 19 million STD infections occur each year in the U.S. Yet while people between the ages of 15 to 24 represent a quarter of the sexually experienced population, they acquire half of these infections. The question is, why? There are barriers to contraceptives—including lack of services, insurance, or financial resources — but beyond these tangible blockades lies a concern for confidentiality and a quarry of misconceptions.
Anyone can get an STD, and you can’t always tell if you have one. If you make the decision to have sex, you need to be informed in order to protect not only yourself, but your partner as well.
Instead of fretting at the high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, the most commonly reported STDs, which may result in infertility, and complaining about people not taking precaution, become part of the solution. In An Ounce of Prevention, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak discusses the Young Women’s Project, which sends counselors to Washington, D.C. schools to talk to at-risk students and educate them, busting falsehoods with fact, informing teens with truth by saying, “You will not prevent pregnancy by drinking Mountain Dew after sex,” and “No, two condoms won’t work.”
While Dvorak’s focus is on teen pregnancy prevention, maybe she’s onto something for the broader spectrum when she says notes that the answer lies in education and prevention and intervention. After all, her article notes that one high school reported nine new cases of HIV positive students. Could this statistic have been prevented with a little information — or even some protection?
The Young Women’s Project is not the only group educating teens in the community about their options. In April, Teens Talk, a club at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, held a discussion group with two “sexperts” who examined and explained myths regarding sex and teen pregnancy. The group works in conjunction with the Alexandria Campaign on Adolescent Pregnancy (ACAP) to decrease the teen pregnancy rate in Alexandria, one of the highest in Northern Virginia.
Over the summer, ACAP-sponsored local youth united by the impact of teen pregnancy on the community to launch a multi-media campaign. Teens Talk initiated the Keep It 360 campaign by offering unique insights into the problem and actively seeking solutions. Keep It 360 aims to “keep it real all the way around” by fostering real, open and honest conversations about sex and teen pregnancy among teens, adults, and the community.
Unfortunately, guilt, mistruths and taboos plague many dialogues surrounding these issues. Why not shake up the status quo and change the tone of these conversations? Safer sex and proactive planning all begin with a conversation. By talking openly and honestly, no matter how uncomfortably at first, teens and parents can become aware and responsible.
Teaching teens about safe sex opens up the lines of communication while providing teens with important information. At the same time, such dialogue increases awareness of sexual health. As shocking and surprising as it sounds, just as some teens don’t know the facts about teen pregnancy, others have no information about STDs.
In addition to Teens Talk, T.C. Williams also offers free and confidential services to all Alexandria youth ages 12-19 through the Teen Wellness Center, located at the T.C. Williams King Street Campus (3330 King Street). Teens have access to physicals, treatment of minor illness, immunization, health education, counseling, and testing for both pregnancy and STDs. Open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the center’s mission is to “ensure that each and every Alexandrian teen succeeds — physically, emotionally, socially, and academically — by collaboratively providing an easily accessible wellness center at T.C. Williams High School.”
Confidentiality is important for teens. It can be the difference between obtaining services or ignoring them altogether. Of course, some teens may not know much about the center, or may be wary about asking for advice, but what matters most is that the services offered are available to teens who need guidance and support regarding their health. Additionally, the Teen Wellness Center Youth Advisory Group (YAG) gives teens an opportunity to support and promote the clinic, empowering teens to lead healthy lives in the process.
Although stayteen.org reports that over half of teens don’t have sex in high school, abstinence doesn’t work for everyone. Despite lecturing and preaching from adults, and sometimes even other teens, some teens will continue to engage in sexual activity. Considering this reality, teens that are having sex should take the proper precautions to prevent both pregnancy and STDs. Whether you’re sexually active or thinking about having sex, it’s never too late to get tested. It may seem embarrassing; it may be a hassle. But as a friend of mine once said, “Know the facts before engaging in the acts.”