STI Rates in the US Are at a Record High — Here's Why

STI Rates in the US Are at a Record High — Here's Why
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times: If you don't want to get pregnant and/or contract an STI, you must wear a condom during sex. 

But what if you just, like, don't really feel like it? New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention might make us think twice about going bareback during sex.

According to the Nov. 17 report, the STI rate in the United States is on the rise, with reported cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea increasing since 2014. Chlamydia cases in particular have skyrocketed, with 1.4 million cases reported in 2014 — a 2.8% increase from 2013 and the highest number of national chlamydia cases ever reported to the CDC. 

Source: Giphy

Lest everyone descend into a state of sheer panic and run screaming toward their nearest testing center, the CDC's findings shouldn't be cause for enormous concern. 

"The good news with this set of STIs is that they can be easily treated," Leslie Kantor, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood, told Mic. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are all relatively "minor" STIs, in that all three are diagnosable and treatable. Chlamydia, in particular, is one of the more common STIs out there, with an estimated one in 20 sexually active young women testing positive for the virus.

Yet the CDC's data is also troubling, in large part because STI rates have remained relatively stable until recently. According to the report, this is the first time STIs have risen since 2006, with gonorrhea and syphilis cases in particular increasing by 5.1% and a whopping 15.1%, respectively. 

It's also concerning that many of these cases seem to be more common in already marginalized communities. Chlamydia, for instance, is generally more common among young women, in large part because it often presents without symptoms, meaning many women simply don't know they have the infection. Furthermore, syphilis rates appear to be concentrated primarily in the gay community, with gay men comprising nearly 83% of the syphilis cases in the CDC report. 

Source: Giphy

It probably doesn't have anything to do with hookup apps. While the CDC did not specify any driving force behind rising STI rates, other state health departments and news reports have cited the rise of hookup apps like Grindr and Tinder as a contributing factor, largely in the context of anxious trend pieces about the threat of "hookup culture." 

Yes, apps like Grindr and Tinder do ostensibly make it easier for people to connect with anonymous casual sex partners, making it easier for more and more people to have more and more casual sex. But Kantor said that hookup apps can't entirely account for the huge spike in STI rates.

"I don't think we have enough data on how widely used any of these apps are to really attribute a rise in [STI rates] to that," Kantor told Mic

CDC spokesperson Donnica Smalls echoed the skepticism. While she conceded that "having anonymous partners may increase someone's risk of acquiring an STD," she added that rates for certain STIs have been climbing long before the advent of hookup apps. 

"Syphilis in particular has been increasing for more than a decade before widespread use of social media and the advent of dating apps," Smalls told Mic

Indeed, there's ample evidence that having casual sex with multiple partners (as using apps like Tinder and Grindr would ostensibly allow you to do) isn't nearly as big of a risk factor for contracting STIs as consistently failing to use a condom with one partner is. In fact, according to one study that came out in October, monogamous couples are just as likely to contract STIs as people with multiple sex partners, in large part because people with multiple sex partners were more likely to consistently practice safe sex.

"The problem isn't the one-night stand, it's abandoning condoms."

Kantor attributed this discrepancy to the "condom drop-off" point that usually happens about 12 weeks into a committed relationship, when couples tend to stop using condoms entirely. "Where condom [use] tends to drop off is when people start having sex with the same person for a while," even if one or both partners haven't been tested, she said. 

"When you put all of that together, it actually suggests the problem isn't the one-night stand, it's abandoning condoms."

Why, exactly, are STI rates climbing? It's likely due to a confluence of different factors, such as harmful myths that dissuade condom use and the widespread prevalence of abstinence-only sex education in the U.S., which does not provide accurate information about STI prevention. The cultural stigma associated with having a sexually transmitted infection (regardless of how common it might be) is also likely a driving force behind young people not getting tested in the first place.

"The majority of young people in this country are not getting the evidence-based sex education they deserve," Kantor told Mic. "We need to make sure that people know about the importance of testing and de-stigmatizing testing. The message ought to be if you're a responsible person, you need to get tested. We have to turn it around to make it something to be proud of instead of something to be ashamed of."