It was inconceivable to Lee that he would ever get a sexually transmitted disease. Then he was diagnosed with HIV.
“I never had the sex talk at home,” explained the 24-year-old Indianapolis man, who requested anonymity to protect his privacy. “I thought, you know, if I was a whore and I slept around, then I would get a disease that would kill me. But I felt like I was invincible because I didn’t sleep around. I had never done a drug in my entire life, and so I didn’t think that an STD could target a group like what I was in.”
Unfortunately, contracting an STD is much easier than Lee had expected. “There’s a lot of 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds who get diagnosed with HIV, probably a lot more than you think,” says Indianapolis disease intervention specialist Taylor Johnsonbaugh. “Indianapolis is also in a syphilis outbreak.”
The news is not much better on a national level, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of the 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases are among youth ages 15 to 24, it reports. And while the HIV rate has remained stable for most of the U.S. population, it is increasing among boys and men ages 13 to 29 – especially minorities and those who have sex with other men.
Men are not the only ones at risk. Women ages 15 to 19 have the highest rate of chlamydia than any other age group, according to the CDC.
These grim numbers don’t surprise Ebony Barney, who teaches Indianapolis middle- and high-school students about STDs and healthy relationships. “In reality, we know that at least one in four teenage girls in the U.S. right now has an STD,” she said.
“It’s natural for young people to believe that it’s everybody else, that it’s not young people,” said Barney, who is an AmeriCorps worker for the Social Health Association of Indiana. “But, in fact, young people are the biggest percentage of people becoming infected with STDs.”
Part of the problem is that many teenagers become sexually active at age 13 or earlier and end up with many partners while still in their teens.
“There’s a lot of sex happening, a lot of different kinds of sex, a lot of sex parties,” says Johnsonbaugh, who has worked at Planned Parenthood as well as the Bell Flower Clinic, which specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of STDs.
Teens who have sex early in their lives may not have enough information about the consequences. They often don’t know the risks or how to protect themselves.
Though Jermain Pierson, 19, was a preteen when he first had sex, he says he always paid attention during sex education classes and considered his body sacred. Now he’s living with HIV. “It really was a momentary lapse of judgment.”
However, most teens get their sexual knowledge from the wrong sources. “The reality is that most kids get that information from their friends,” said Johnsonbaugh. “So the information that you get is often from people who don’t know what they’re talking about, really, and who might not be making the best choices.”
This shaky method of transmitting information results in a variety of different misconceptions. “I can’t tell you how many times I hear people who say that saliva or spit can transmit HIV, and it absolutely doesn’t,” Barney said.
“One of the funniest things that I’ve heard over the past year -- it’s really come up a lot -- is about earwax,” she continued. “The idea is that if a person takes earwax and puts it on a woman’s vagina or a man’s penis, they can tell if they have an STD.”
Teenagers might be leaning on their equally inexperienced peers for information because they can’t find that information elsewhere – neither at school, nor in their own homes. As part of her work in schools, Barney quizzes parents about talking to their children about sex.
“Most of them will say, ‘Well, I thought the school did that. I didn’t think I had to do that.’ They believe that kids are getting that information from somewhere else, so they don’t need to.”
Barney would like parents to know that kids need information from many sources, but she doesn’t often get the chance to tell them. “I’ve hosted parent nights where I’ve invited parents to come out and ask questions, to hear about what their students are learning about in class. Nobody comes.”
Most teens don’t even think about STDs until they start experiencing symptoms, says Johnsonbaugh. Trouble is, some STDs, like chlamydia, don’t have obvious symptoms.
Indianapolis has several sites where teens can get free testing and advice. Pierson found resources at his local high school, Arsenal Tech. Teens also can turn to the Bell Flower Clinic, Planned Parenthood, and the Raphael Center, among others.
According to Johnsonbaugh, these clinics are not only inexpensive or free, but some, like Bell Flower, don’t require parental consent for teens. “As long as you’re above the age of 13, we can take care of you,” she said.
Johnsonbaugh would like sexually active teens to be tested regularly, but she knows that’s not likely, not only because youth are ignorant about STDs but also because they don’t believe they are susceptible regardless of the risks they take.
Lee and Pierson both thought they were being conscientious with their bodies before they learned otherwise. “I figured I really knew how to protect myself and knew the right things to do, but I guess not,” Pierson said. “I knew all the symptoms of each STD and how to contract it. I just didn’t apply it.”
Experts agree that education is key to reducing the high rate of STDs among teens, and parents must step up and arm their teens with accurate information.
According to Amber Madison, author of Talking Sex With Your Kids, parents experience fear as well as discomfort when it comes to discussions of sexual topics. “The fear of a lot of parents and school officials is that, ‘Hey, if you talk to kids about sex, you know, you’re telling them to go out and do it.’”
Madison says parents don’t need to become experts to talk to their kids about sex. “The best thing parents can say is, ‘Hey, you know what? I may not have all the answers, but I will always be here to talk with you.’”
Creating an open dialog can make the world of difference during a critical time period in a young person’s life.
“Our teen years are really our most dangerous years,” Pierson observed. “That’s when we feel like we’re grown. We know a lot. We’re ready to move on and step out into the real world. … And when you actually get out there and you find that this is not what you thought it would be, it’s kind of too late.”
Assistant editors Hrishi Deshpande, 16, and Keenen Brannon, 17, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press