There are some topics no one ever wants to talk about: your wedding planning process, our current political climate, what’s really in fast-food chicken nuggets, and any type of bodily function, fluid or rash. Enter: STIs.
Recently published data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows an alarming increase in sexually transmitted infection (STI) cases across the country from 2013 to 2017. According to the reported data, syphilis cases nearly doubled, gonorrhea cases increased by 67 percent and chlamydia remained at record highs.
Some sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia, occur more frequently among young women. Women ages 15 to 24 made up about 45 percent of the 1.7 million reported cases of chlamydia, according to the CDC.
Exhale spoke with Angelique Bouthot, community outreach specialist for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, about what contributes to increased STI cases, how STIs impact women differently than men, and how to dispel negative stigmas around this issue.
Bouthot says there is no one reason that could explain why STI cases are suddenly rising, but part of it is,“definitely a combination of lack of information, cultural stigmas, and some structural barriers that keep people from accessing sexual and reproductive health care.”
Those structural barriers include affordable health care, access to health insurance, reliable transportation to get to local health providers, as well as language and cultural barriers, says Bouthot.
STI risks, symptoms and long-term consequences are distinctly different for people with vaginas compared to people with penises. The vagina is uniquely susceptible to infections because its lining is thinner and more delicate than the skin on a penis. The vagina also has a moist environment where bacteria are more likely to thrive.
Additionally, women are likely to confuse STI symptoms with other types of non-sexually transmitted conditions such as urinary tract or yeast infections. Data shows that people with vaginas are more likely to not have visible symptoms of chlamydia or gonorrhea as well.
STIs left untreated can have serious consequences for cisgendered women including infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, or ectopic pregnancy.
According to Bouthot, nearly half of STIs nationwide occur in people under 25 years old, making it important for parents to have conversations with their kids about safe sex.
“It involves having an honest and open conversation about the benefits of delaying sex until they are ready and how to protect themselves should they choose to become sexually active,” she says.
One way to approach educating your kids about sexual health is to “start younger with the building blocks of the conversation,” says Bouthot. “Someone with a young child wouldn’t be talking to them about sex and protection methods, but they can start thinking about how to talk about bodies and boundaries.”
“As kids get older, they’ll have more questions about where babies come from and what periods are. The smaller conversations create the scaffolding,” says Bouthot. “It doesn’t have to be this one big sex talk.”
Whether as a parent, educator or peer, encouraging more informative and open discussions about these topics will help to decrease STI rates and social misconceptions, Bouthot says. “There are stigmas around the type of person who has STIs, whether they are ‘dirty’ or ‘clean.’ Those things can discourage folks from getting tested, talking to their partners or getting treated.”