I entered college with absolutely no knowledge about sexual health or my body and feeling humiliated asking my doctor for a sexually transmitted disease test with my mother in the room.
Taking care of one’s sexual health is no different than taking care of one’s oral hygiene or mental health.
In 2018, Philadelphia’s rate of STDs was 1,822 cases per 100,000 people, which was the third-highest figure in the country, behind Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackson, Mississippi, the Center for Disease Control reported in October 2019.
The rise in STDs can affect all city residents, especially people of color, individuals experiencing poverty and members of the LGBTQ community. It’s a sign that we need to increase our sexual education programs to properly cover sexual health, contraception usage and the risks involved from a young age.
Brittany Robinson, the wellness education program coordinator at the Wellness Resource Center, said that the rates of STDs could go down if students had formal sex education classes from a young age.
“Sexual education is not required in the state of Pennsylvania, so children’s sexual education is across the spectrum,” Robinson said. “They could receive none at all, abstinence-based or comprehensive sex ed. If they’re receiving education that is insufficient, then they are having a misunderstanding of the risks involved.”
There were 2.4 million cases of STDs reported in the United States in 2018, according to the CDC. The most common STD was chlamydia, followed by gonorrhea, both of which are asymptomatic but can cause infertility if left untreated.
In Philadelphia, there were 21,119 cases of gonorrhea and 7,288 cases of chlamydia reported in 2019.
Additionally, 499 HIV cases and 459 syphilis cases were reported in Philly in 2018, according to the CDC. Although cases of HIV have been steadily decreasing nationally, cases of syphilis have been increasing.
Brad Windhauser, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor at Temple University, said despite this reduction in cases of HIV, the issue shouldn’t be taken lightly.
“Improved medical technology is a double-edged sword because we have moved further and further away from the epicenter of disease, and the generation in their 20s now only reads about it in history,” Windhauser said. “A lot of young people have the mentality of ‘Oh, I’m young I’ve got plenty of time.’”
But our time is finite. More than 46 percent of adolescents did not use a condom the last time they had sex, according to the CDC.
This may be because they are uninformed of the risks. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade, and I never received any type of formal sexual education other than abstinence.
Along with a lack of education, the topic of sex and sexuality is highly taboo. As a result, people are less likely to be open about their sexual history to their partners, parents or even doctors.
This public health issue could be attributed to several societal factors that make it difficult for people to bring themselves to get tested, both emotionally and physically, Robinson said.
“Sex and [sexually transmitted infections] are still very largely stigmatized,” Robinson said. “People are really afraid to engage in these conversations about them in general because shame is associated with it. There are not a lot of role models in the media, so we’re not seeing ways to engage in discussions that are affirming and makes people comfortable.”
Christopher Wheldon, a social and behavioral sciences professor, said although embarrassment and ignorance definitely play a role, ultimately poverty is the underlying cause for increases in the rates of STDs in Philadelphia.
“Networks characterized by certain vulnerabilities, like high rates of poverty, structural discrimination, substance use, and lack of access to healthcare, may result in higher risk of STIs,” Wheldon said. “Philadelphia has high poverty rates. This suggests to me that the social and economic vulnerabilities associated with poverty are likely affecting multiple health outcomes, including STIs, in those cities.”
Legislation enacting mandatory comprehensive sexual education in elementary through high school could drastically reduce the rates of STDs and STIs in Philadelphia.
“Developmentally appropriate topics can be taught as young as kindergarten,” Robinson said. “College should not be the first time that people are presented with this information. If we are withholding accurate medical information from people, they have a more difficult time navigating their sexual experiences.”