While America is focusing on the evolving drama of the Spitzer sex scandal and the MySpace musical styling of "Kristen," the young woman who he paid for sex, the CDC has announced that one in four American teen girls has a sexually transmitted infection. It's fitting that the stories made it into the same news cycle: America's sexual repression and unwillingness to discuss the deed have led to a national sex scandal and a national public health crisis, and all on the same day!
The most reported statistic to come out of the CDC study is that 1 in 4 girls, ages 14-18, has an STI. More alarming, if possible, and certainly more telling, was the discovery that almost half of black teen girls have at least one infection, as compared to 20 percent of white teens. The information in the study is more reliable than other studies on teen sexual behavior because it did not rely on teens to report their sexual activity and the incidence of infection, which often skews results, but instead required that the young women in the study be tested for STIs in person.
This isn't the first scientific call to arms about teen sexual health: studies revealed several months ago that teen birth rates are on the rise for the first time in 15 years. Parents are increasingly alarmed and confused about what is an established teen sexual health crisis. What can parents do to make sure their teen doesn't end up as a statistic?
First and foremost, America has to get over its squeamishness about teens and sex: not talking about it for the past 20 years has proven ineffective, to say the least. Lessons about sexual health and responsibility begin at home, with parents, grandparents, and older siblings the preferred sources of information for most young people. If sex is discussed early, often, and without shame or judgment, your teen is more likely to come to you when they do decide to start having sex. If you haven't talked to your teen about sex, use this study as opening for that conversation. Some community organizations, like Planned Parenthood, even offer sex education programs that parents and teens can attend together and Advocates for Youth offers advice, information, and materials for parents nervous about "The Talk."
Sex education begins at home, but should be supplemented and streamlined at school. Americans must call on their elected officials to end almost 1.5 billion dollars of funding for ineffective abstinence-only sex education, and put money and resources toward a model of comprehensive sex education that has been proven to delay teen sex and increase teen sexual responsibility. We can't expect young people to act responsibly if we don't give them the information and tools to do so. And even if you live in a "liberal" area, don't be surprised if your teen is getting abstinence-only -- talk to your teen's principal and insist on seeing the sex education curricula, or even better, offer to serve on a parent advisory board that helps shape the curriculum.
The CDC study found that the most common sexually transmitted infection found in the young women was human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common STI among women of all ages, and can cause genital warts and even cervical cancer. Scientists have developed a three dose vaccine that protects against the most cancerous strains of HPV called Gardasil, which is administered to young women ages 9 to 26. The HPV vaccine has irked some religious conservatives who claim vaccinating young people against a sexually transmitted infection will promote sexual promiscuity -- a theory that holds about as much water as the idea that NOT talking to them about sex will assure they wait until marriage. Look into getting the vaccine for your daughter, and using the appointment as an opportunity to talk about sexual responsibility, birth control, and STI's.
Parents and schools, of course, are only part of the equation. Young people themselves also have a responsibility to use the information they are given and make responsible, healthy decisions, and the media making and political worlds must also take steps to support teens in making those decisions. There is no quick fix, but simply starting an open, inclusive conversation is the first step.