Sexually transmitted diseases are especially frustrating to deal with, especially since most of them are totally preventable if you practice safe sex and get tested regularly. That’s one of the reasons there’s so much stigma around them — people feel “dirty” or a lot of shame for not using a condom and ending up with herpes or some other STD, and that shame can still exist even when someone was raped. In fact, A new study found that these feelings are actually one of the reasons young women aren’t getting tested for STDs, which is just terrible, since most of them can be treated without any lasting health problems. Treatment is also often a form of prevention, especially when it comes to herpes and HIV, so it’s even more important to know if you have a sexually transmitted virus.
But a new study shows that women are afraid to talk to their doctors about their sexual activity and aren’t asking for tests.
A lot of young women aren’t even admitting that they’re sexually active, which would give a doctor a reason to offer an STD test without the woman having to make the first move. This has seriously got to change.
A study done by Quest Diagnostics explored perceptions about sexual health and STDS in young women ages 15 to 24, as well as their mothers, primary care doctors, and gynecologists. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STD rates are on the rise — one in four teens has an STD. Over half of all new STDs diagnoses occur between the ages of 15 and 24 years old, which means that teens really need to be getting tested. But it looks like the stigma surrounding not just STDs, but also simply being sexually active in the first place, is to blame for these rising rates. This is especially true among young women.
The survey found that 27 percent of young women don’t feel comfortable talking about sex or STD testing with their doctor and another 27 percent reports lying or skirting the issue about their sexual activity. This is one of the most important things to learn as an adult: Never lie to a doctor about how much sex you’re having (or drinking or smoking or drug use), since all they want to do is help keep you healthy. You can’t get in trouble with a doctor for admitting that you’ve lost your virginity and would like an STD test or to talk about contraception. However, given the amount of LGBTQ people who are scared to go to the doctor, the fact that women of color feel ignored by their health professionals, and the overall prude forms of sexual education some states offer teens, it’s no wonder young women don’t feel comfortable asking for an STD test.
Because that’s the thing — you have to ask for most STD tests. A pap smear will test for cellular abnormalities that indicate you might have HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to cervical cancer. Deaths due to cervical cancer have dropped since the pap smear became a regular medical exam for women, because it can be detected before it develops or be wiped out early with regular screening. But that’s the only STD that comes included with a pap smear.
For other tests, you have to ask your doctor. Depending where you are, and if you are upfront with your sexual history a doctor might suggest a round of STD tests, but otherwise, you have to speak up.
It’s very easy to get tested — it’s usually just a urine or blood analysis. A swab of your genitals can detect herpes, and a cheek swab or a blood test can detect HIV. None of them hurt or are especially time consuming. If you have insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these tests are free. You can also get them for free or at a low cost from places like Planned Parenthood, a college health center, or another medical clinic. But you do have to ask for the tests most of the time. According to the Quest survey, over 51 percent of young women have been tested for STDs, but only 28 percent of them asked for the test, which means that doctors are at least doing a good job at being proactive. But it should be comfortable for young women all the same.
The fear of talking about sex and STDs is real. But so are the stats about how much unsafe sex teens are having and how ill informed they are about the health risks. The study found that nine in ten young women who were sexually active didn’t think they were at risk for STDs like chlamydia or gonorrhea.
If you’re sexually active, you’re at risk for all STDs. Every. Single. One.
And despite the fact that over half of women between the ages of 15 and 24 years old are sexually active, only 39 percent of them reported using a condom the last time they had sex. All of this is evidence that we need to be talking about safe sex more often and empowering young women to advocate for themselves when they’re at the doctor.
They also should be empowered to advocate for themselves in the bedroom and insist that their partners use protection and get tested themselves. Pretending that teens don’t have sex — or shaming the ones that do — is putting their health at risk, and it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. More communication and education is the only way to fix this public health issue, because there’s no reason people should be walking around with preventable diseases.