Imagine you are in a photo booth on a lark with a friend. You sit on the cramped little seat, mugging for the camera, taking shot after shot. You’re so close together your heads touch. You’re having a great time. Now imagine that your friend has head lice.
Head lice isn’t a sexually-transmitted disease (an STD) but thinking about head lice makes it easier to think about STDs. Lice and STDs both can come from people we like – a lot! – at a moment when we’re having a whole lot of fun. Both lice and STDs stick with you. Both can be passed along to even more people. And both lice and STDs are things no one likes to talk about. We’d rather pretend they’re not there.
If you are sexually active or hope to be soon, you need to know a whole lot more about STDs than you probably do right now. You need the truth. Let’s get some facts.
Your first time is just as likely to lead to infection as your one-hundredth. STDs don’t just pick on people who sleep around a lot. It only takes one encounter with an infected person to infect you too. Certainly, the more partners you have the greater your chance of being with someone who carries a disease, and the more partners your current love has had, the more likely it is that he or she carries a disease. It’s just a matter of numbers. But keep in mind that even once can be enough.
STDs are everywhere. Kids in your school are infected, no matter how nice your neighborhood is. If not everyone you know is celibate, then you likely know someone with an STD. The thing is, you can’t tell who. STDs are not like the chicken pox, with obvious signs that will tell you to stay away. What visible signs STDs present are not easy to see, even with clothes off, in the dark and in the heat of passion.
STDs are everywhere but not everywhere. They live in the bodies and secretions of infected people but they don’t live on doorknobs, toilet seats, or dirty underwear. These germs have requirements, just like every other creature, and dark, moist, sexy places suit them best. The notion that a person can pick up an STD from bathroom hardware started as a cover-up, when someone who got infected wanted to convince other people that he or she had never had sex. Worry about your lover, not about the lavatory.
Birth control pills won’t protect you against STDs. Choosing oral or anal sex won’t protect you. Not even “using your fingers” or sticking to long, juicy kisses is absolutely infection-proof. STDs are different diseases, and they all have different patterns of transmission, but so long as you are exchanging bodily fluids in some way with a person infected with an STD, you’re vulnerable. The only certain protection is to have no sex at all. Using a condom properly every single time is the best protection for both partners if no-sex is not an option.
STDs are things you want to avoid. It’s easy to think that if STDs are so easily acquired that they must not be very dangerous. But they are. Some STDs cause cancer. Some cause warts and oozing sores. Some cause blindness, or ruin your immune system, or erode your great good looks.
An STD is forever. Unless you get treatment, an STD won’t go away on its own. Some sexually-transmitted diseases, like syphilis and AIDS, can even kill you. If you think you have an STD or have been with someone who has, get checked out. You can get free or low-cost screening at government-funded clinics you can locate by zip code or at locations funded by the Centers for Disease Control. Don’t worry and wonder. You can also talk to your own physician. By law, your doctor may not tell your parents or anyone else about your health status or treatment without your consent.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, young people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for almost 10 million new cases of STDs each year (this is nearly half of the 20 million new cases reported annually by people of all ages). This is serious stuff. But your friends are unlikely to tell you about it. Your sexual partner is unlikely to tell you either.
Just like realizing after that session in the photo booth that your friend has head lice, finding out your partner has an STD makes you feel betrayed and angry. The person should have told you. What sort of friend would withhold this kind of information? Then realize that your friend may not even know. If he or she knows, the truth may be too scary to describe. No one wants to be rejected. No one wants to be identified.
Sexually-transmitted diseases depend on fear and disgust and silence. You’ve got to protect yourself. Now you know.