Where Sex Ed Went Majorly Wrong

The condom on the banana. The fake “egg baby.” The weird robot babies. Sex education somehow managed to be universally relatable to all of us, yet unique to the environment we grew up in. Although sex ed varies greatly in its approach depending on whether our hometown leans to the right or left of the political spectrum, one thing is certain: it severely stigmatizes the reality of STDs and STIs.

My high school was in a fairly liberal, affluent neighborhood. With a fairly liberal sex education program, condom use was emphasized rather than abstinence. However, this isn't the case for those who are taught under more conservative programs. Despite my liberal environment, scare tactics were still used to scare and guilt us out of choosing to have sex at all. I hate to admit it, but 16 year-old me really believed that only “sluts” get STDs.

We all remember those horrifying pictures of people with severe lesions or rashes due to the ever-feared genital warts and herpes. What your high school sex ed teacher didn’t tell you is many people with these diseases can be asymptomatic, that is, they don’t have any noticeable symptoms. This is why people could be infected with an STI or STD and not even know it. It’s also why these diseases are so common among young people.

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Not only that, but the fear of pregnancy far outweighed the fear of contracting a disease when I first started thinking about becoming sexually active. The same can be said for many of my friends. This is why I think so many girls forego condoms if they are using some form of birth control. While the scare tactics for STDs were strong, the fear of getting pregnant was stronger and therefore became the center of attention.

This issue became important to me when I became interested in courses on gender, sexuality, and feminism and unraveled the stigma around STDs, particularly regarding women. As I wrap up my time in college, I've reflected a lot on the college rowdiness I’ve seen first hand, including heavy drinking, normalized hookups with different people, and a strong aversion to condoms among almost everyone I know.

Yes, I said it. People don’t use condoms as much as they should. And I get it, they don’t like them. Condoms are clunky, interrupt the heat of the moment, and may affect the overall experience. Only 34% of men and 24% of women reported using them in their last sexual encounter, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But the reality is people do get STDs all the time and condoms are our best method of protection against them (dental dams too; you can still contract STDs and STIs from isolated oral sex).

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We all tend to think that STDs and STIs only happen to dirty people or people who sleep around all the time or basically anyone other than, um, ourselves. However, that is simply not the case. According to the American Sexual Health Association, one in two sexually active people will contract an STI by age 25. We go on and on about flu season when a nasty case of the cold sweeps campus, but how many of us have had a friend tell us us that they had to be treated for an STI?  

It's urgent that we destigmatize the prevalence and stereotypes surrounding STDs. We must encourage our friends to realize STIs are a very common result of sex with multiple partners, and taking precautions such as frequent testing and using condoms are the best way to protect ourselves. The bottom line is that the prevalence of STDs isn't that far off from the common cold, and we must take action to protect ourselves.