Statistics are People: Humanizing Sexually Transmitted Infections

Safer sex education and awareness programs are a common theme on university campuses. The types of programs can range from simple bulletin boards in your residence hall, guest speakers from public health officials in classrooms, and even our very own programs. While, understandably, some education programs are more comprehensive than others, in general, most of the safer sex education awareness campaigns I see every year on campus have great information.

Whether the education programs are passive like a sexual health poster that applauds the use of condoms or actively engaging, such as STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection) bingo games that educate about infection rates and methods of transmission, the overarching method seems to be: Be Safe. Wear Condoms.

Students Living With STIs

The underlying goal of these programs is one of prevention. This makes sense as we all want to protect ourselves. Make no mistake, I greatly support these programs but I feel it is important that as sexual health educators we continue to ask ourselves: what about our community members who already have an STI?

University life doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When you start college, you and your peers come with a lifetime of lived experiences. And yes, some of those experiences very well may have been sexual. My concern is more a question to ponder: Are we forgetting to acknowledge and address the needs of students already living with STIs in our communities? Are we educating about what to expect after infection? Along with our preventive measures, should we also be including strategies in how to have, what guest blogger Hurbert Izienicki, calls “the other talk”.

Communication about sex in general is hard. Communicating that you have an STI is harder. Hearing that a past, current, or potential partner has had or is living with an STI is not going to be an easy conversation to have. Regardless, it’s a very real conversation that many students should be having.

Consider the following statistics:

  • 2/3 of all STIs occur in people 25 years of age or younger.
  • 1/4 of new STI infections occur in teenagers.
  • By the age of 24, 1 in 3 sexually active people will have contracted an STI.
  • The highest rates of genital HPV infections are found in adults between the ages of 18 to 28.
  • In 2000, 15- to 19-year-old women had the highest rate of gonorrhea compared to all other age categories. In addition, 20- to 29-year-old women had the highest rates of primary and secondary syphilis.
  • Among men, 20- to 24-year-old men had the highest rate of gonorrhea and 4th highest rates of primary and secondary syphilis.

(Sources: American Social Health Association, Centers for Disease Control, and Planned Parenthood.)

As you can see from the statistics, the reality of students living with STIs is very real. In fact, “what happens after infection?” is a question we often get which can be seen in a Q&A response from Dr. Debby Herbenick in regards to a question about whether or not it’s ethical to have sex after diagnosis of HPV.

Statistics Are Real People

Given this reality, my take home point for today’s blog is pretty simple. When talking about STIs, remember that you are are not only talking about statistics but that you are also talking about real people who exist in your life. You are talking about your friends, your floor-mates, and quite possibly, yourself.

Can Sex Make You Sick, Or Keep You Healthy?