sexual health
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April signals the start of spring, but it also happens to be sexually transmitted disease (STD) Awareness Month, which makes it the opportune time to educate ourselves a bit more on all things sexual health-related. It may sound unpleasant, but we promise you it’s not! It’s actually really important to be as educated as possible not just about the STDs themselves, but also about how we as a society can better understand and address them to remove the shame and stigma associated to them.

There are many factors at play when discussing the reasons why society fails to educate young women about their own sexual health and STDs, and most of them are part of our larger cultural and historical problems with women’s sexuality.

Here are three major ways our society fails to educate young women about their sexual health.

1There are still schools that teach abstinence-only sex education

Here in the United States, STD education is wrapped up in our extremely fraught sex education programs. They vary wildly from state to state, meaning there is a huge disparity in what and how young women are being taught. When states push abstinence-only sex education, that means young women are missing out on a huge portion of information about their own health. Lacking this knowledge, young women don’t know how to recognize signs of STDs, how to prevent them, and how they can affect their health.

Young women who are educated in abstinence-only environments and are surrounded by purity culture are actually at a much higher risk of contracting an STD or getting pregnant. There’s a reason the U.S. ranks first in the developed world when it comes to STDs. Unfortunately, as long as abstinence-only programs exist in our society, these statistics are unlikely to change. When our culture values purity over science-based education, young women will lose.

2We approach the topic of STDs with a lot of stigma and shame

Beyond the seemingly obvious issue of the lack of proper sex education, there’s also the issue of stigma around sexual behavior and STDs. Because people know so little about STDs and STIs, there is a culture of fear and panic and secrecy surrounding them.

Here are some fun sexual health statistics for you: 1 in 4 Americans has an STD. 50 percent of adults have HPV. One in every six people has genital herpes. There are 17 million people living with HIV. 800,000 cases of gonorrhea occur each year. Chlamydia is the most common STD among people in their teens and early twenties.

If STDs are so common, why is there so much shame attached to them? Because there is so much misinformation out there, people keep it a secret. No one wants to be judged for their sexual past, even though there’s nothing shameful about contracting an STD. As long as people continue to be ignorant about STDS, they will remain a secret in society and the shame will never go away.

Along with this goes the shame of getting tested. This is where we are all really at risk; because of this fear, many young women fail to get tested and don’t even know that they have an STD. Many STDS that are curable can cause permanent, long-term damage if they aren’t caught early, but if women don’t even know what signs to look for, or how often they should be getting tested, then they can’t take part in preventative or early care. A seemingly simply cured STD can spiral out of control and have serious repercussions down the line.

3Women aren’t taught enough about their anatomy at a young age

The fact of the matter is, women are at a higher risk to contract STDs than men are. If we aren’t educated about how to prevent them, spot symptoms, get tested, and get medical care, then there will always be an undue burden on women. And what makes this all suck even more is that all of these problems are wrapped up in larger problem of how women’s sexuality is seen in this country. As long as old men are debating what women can do with their bodies, then we are at a disadvantage. It all comes back to dismantling the patriarchy, fam!

From a very young age, children should be taught the actual names of their genitals. Little boys all know that their penises are penises, but the anatomical terms for young girls are coded in “decent” words. Who among us hasn’t heard a unique name that was used throughout childhood? “Privates,” “hoo ha,” “cookie” — little girls are taught from a very young age that their reproductive organs are unmentionables.

As a result, we grow up with our own anatomy shrouded in mystery. If we can’t even talk about our own genitals then there’s little chance we’re going to have the tools necessary to advocate for our own sexual health when the time comes.

The more women are improperly taught about our own bodies, the more likely we are to confuse symptoms of an STD with something else. Oftentimes our initial thought can be yeast infection or UTI, when in reality it’s an STI that can lead to serious health complications down the road if it remains untreated.

It’s never too late to get the facts when it comes to sexual health and STDs.

Women need to take control of their health, and that means getting educated about what’s going on inside your body and how best to care for it. It’s never too late to start undoing the damage that a poor educational system has done—because your health and wellbeing are totally worth it.