Ignorance Is Bliss, And Then You Get an STD

During the Clinton administration, frank talk about teen sex and safe sex cost Joycelyn Elders her job as surgeon general of the United States.
During the Clinton administration, frank talk about teen sex and safe sex cost Joycelyn Elders her job as surgeon general of the United States. (By Bill Haber -- Associated Press)
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By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

It seems like a lifetime ago, but spring used to be the perfect excuse for me to write lightheartedly about sex. From mating rituals on display at the National Zoo to cherry blossom courtships around the Tidal Basin, this was truly the season to be jolly.

Not so much anymore.

When I was teenager, there were basically two venereal diseases to worry about: syphilis and gonorrhea. Now we fret about a bunch of such infections, and they are gathered under a more serious-sounding classification: sexually transmitted disease, or STD.

For today's teens, the instinctual quest for sex carries the risk of unspeakable pain. In the age of AIDS, the very act that gives life could end up being a death sentence.

Teenage boy meets girl 14 to 19, and there's a one in four chance that she has a sexually transmitted disease--and doesn't even know it. Those statistics come from a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said 48 percent of black teenage girls are infected.

You'd like to think that if the boy knew the odds, he'd keep his pants zipped. But even if he does, he probably doesn't. Boys were definitely involved in the problem -- even if they are rarely involved in the STD studies.

"One of the reasons that we look at girls is because the health consequences are so much greater for them than boys," CDC spokesman Scott Bryan told me. "Sexually transmitted infections can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, cervical cancer and more."

Another reason, however, is that boys are far less likely than girls to be screened for STDs, so only the devil knows how many of them are running around radioactive. Millions, I suspect.

The relative lack of attention to men's sexual health has consequences, too. The March issue of the Journal of Pediatrics reports on a study that found that circumcision does not necessarily reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Why is it taking us so long to deal with these questions? And given that flash of Stone Age insight, should we be surprised if some guy out there still thinks that smashing his penis with a rock will get rid of gonorrhea?

According to the Annals of Internal Medicine for April 1, almost one in four U.S. women who undergo cervical screening are found to have the high-risk human papillomavirus. HPV is a leading cause of deadly cervical cancer.

Yet there was virtually no public outcry about HPV until a pharmaceutical company came up with an HPV vaccine. All of a sudden, the health of girls is so important that some states have made vaccination a condition of their admission to public school.

It's enough to make you wonder why schools don't do a better job of sex education. You already know why parents can't do the job. Half of the kids most at risk don't have any parents to speak of, and the other half have parents too busy to try.

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