This week, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the alarming results of their study of sexually transmitted disease rates among young women, the first of its kind. According to the study, one in four teenage girls aged 14 to 19 has an STD. The most common infection among the teens studied was the human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus that includes various strains – the most dangerous among them being the leading cause of cervical cancer. The study also found that young African-American women are disproportionately affected. Nearly half have an STD.
If we needed further proof that abstinence-only education is not working, these numbers should certainly be convincing. I’m not holding my breath that President Bush will acknowledge this serious problem at all, let alone reconsider his ideological belief that sex won’t happen amongst non-married young people unless educators sully their minds with talk of condoms and protecting themselves. Hopefully, then, the man or woman who becomes our next president will take this issue seriously and overhaul the way sex is taught in our schools. Young people, apparently, know what sex is without the help of their elders. But, as this study suggests, they are not aware of the dangers and the necessity of protecting themselves from those dangers.
Some conservatives and abstinence-only advocates may argue that young people are educated about the dangers of STDs in abstinence-only programs. While this may be true, they are reminded ad nauseam that abstinence is their only defense against these infections.
Even in the 1950s, the supposed golden age of purity and decorum, young people were having sex before marriage. Now, in the sex-saturated 2000s, it should come as no surprise that teenagers are giving into temptation, even as they are told that having sex before marriage is shameful and impure (and perhaps even because they are told this).
Thankfully, there are advocates for young people in America who recognize that STDs will not realistically be wiped out simply by teaching teenagers to abstain. In 2006, a vaccine for HPV called Gardasil was approved by the FDA. Some state governments, as a result, have added Gardasil to their list of required immunizations and have come under fire for it. Religious conservatives in Texas, for example, argued that offering teen girls this protection will encourage them to have sex. Maintaining sexual purity in their minds is more important than preventing cervical cancer.
Sadly, young females are disproportionately infected with STDs. While males are obviously facilitating the spread, young men with infections such as HPV have no symptoms and no inherent health risks as a result of those infections. In fact, there isn’t even an HPV test for males. I can’t help but wonder, if men were at a greater risk for cancer as a result of HPV, would the ethics of these vaccinations be at all questioned?
Females tend to face the brunt of the shaming “purity” rhetoric – as evidenced by the increasingly popular Purity Balls being held around the country, where women accompany their fathers to a dance and pledge to remain virgins until marriage. Their virginity, says the speeches often made at these dances, will be a gift to their future husbands. In tandem with Purity Balls, Integrity Balls are also increasing in popularity, where young men accompany their mothers to a dance and are urged to preserve the integrity of young women for other young men. After all, how would they feel if their future wives were to come to them “damaged” by pre-marital sex with some integrity-stealing young man? The purity of young men themselves is barely mentioned.
Young women, then, are the gatekeepers of sex, the gender that is expected to stay pure or risk being called a slut – and the gender most affected by STDs. Abstinence-only education works against the health and well-being of young people of both sexes, but for young women, it is downright dangerous.