April is STD Awareness Month, although most young people are already pretty well aware that sexually transmitted diseases exist. Of 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occurring each year, about half are contracted by young people age 15-24. Many of us have experienced this firsthand, or have helped friends or partners deal with a diagnosis.
This month, we’ll probably see a lot of information about STD prevention. How can you keep yourself and your partners safe? Where can you get tested for STDs, including HIV? How can you treat an STD if you have one? How do you put a condom on, anyway?
I think this information is critical, and I want everyone in America to know how to have all the sex they want to have safely and consensually. I do however, want to challenge our generation to think beyond awareness this month. Why are STDs so prevalent when they are preventable and treatable? Why is there so much stigma around getting tested and communicating with our sexual partners that we need a special month to make it okay to talk about?
Also in April (Wednesday, April 10) we are marking the first-ever National Youth HIV & AIDS Awareness Day. Most of our generation wasn’t even born by the height of the AIDS epidemic in the US, but somehow, 30 years later, 1,000 young people are diagnosed with HIV every month and 34,000 young people are currently living with HIV.
For many of us, middle and high school sex ed classes were our main source of information about sex and STDs. Unfortunately, there is no national standard for the quality and accuracy of information we receive in these classes and only 22 states and Washington, D.C. mandate sex education. Only 12 states require that sex and HIV education provided to students be medically accurate.
Conversely, 37 states require that if sex education is provided, it must include information on abstinence and 19 states require that instruction on the importance of engaging in sexual activity only within marriage be provided. In case you missed it, that means 15 states don’t care whether or not students receive any information at all — but if they do it better be about abstinence.
For students who are already having sex or LGBTQ students whose sexuality is rarely discussed or even acknowledged in many sex education programs, this information is irrelevant. For all students, inaccurate information that doesn’t reflect our lived realities deepens the stigma around young people and sex. If you're 13 and adults you trust are telling you that sex is wrong, what are the odds you’re going to insist your partner use a condom when you have sex?
The roots of STD and HIV epidemics among young people have nothing to do with young people themselves and everything to do with the rampant fear of young people and sex among some policy makers and religious leaders.
There are notable exceptions: Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Senator Frank Lautenberg have introduced and re-introduced proactive legislation to set a quality standard around sex education but struggle to get support from their colleagues. Ultimately, policymakers — not educators, not doctors — are deciding what we learn about sex, and deciding whether or not our state has enough money to actually offer sex education.
The Centers for Disease Control’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) provides funding for sex education programs that includes information about HIV prevention and training programs for teachers to make sure they were prepared to teach sex education. In 2012, Congress slashed their budget by 25%, severely limiting the resources that DASH can provide to states. It seems like all Congress does lately is fight about money and threaten to shut down the government, but they are, once again, debating a budget that seeks to cut even more from programs like DASH.
What we need — inclusive, age-appropriate and medically accurate information that acknowledges that young people have sex and want to do so safely — does exist.
It’s time for young people to get engaged in conversations with policymakers. We need so much more than awareness. We need resources to fund these programs and we need recognition that we have the right to accurate information about sex and sexuality.
This April, contact your members of Congress and ask where they stand on comprehensive sex education.