April is STD Awareness Month, and since I’ve been in the sexual health field for more than 30 years, I feel I’m more than qualified to share a bit of history pertaining to STDs. In reality they’ve probably been around since the beginning of time. Like everything else they began as bacteria and spores, which in time turned into the diseases and infections we know today.
In the 50’s and 60’s, there were approximately three STDs: gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia. What they had in common is that they’re bacterial and therefore treatable with a massive dose of penicillin. During this period of time I worked as a nurse at Cal State Northridge, and my biggest fear was that one of the students would go into anaphylactic shock after one of those penicillin shots. Luckily, that never happened!
Three major societal shifts occurred during the 50’s and 60’s: the women’s movement, birth control pills and the sexual revolution. You can only imagine how excited women finally were that they could have sex and not worry about getting pregnant. Unfortunately, the freedom from worry about accidental pregnancy, combined with softening social pressure to abstain from sex outside of marriage, led to some big changes in the world of STDs.
Today there are more than 25 STDs in the mainstream. A portion of those are viral, which, in most cases, means they’re incurable. In the early 80’s, a new virus came on the scene, known as HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). In its early days, HIV usually progressed to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), and eventually to death. In the beginning, the experts really didn’t know how it was contracted, but it was finally determined to be a sexually transmitted disease. By then, however, the disease had grown proportionally and taken many lives.
Currently those living with HIV/AIDS have options that have prolonged their life expectancy once they have been diagnosed.
In the early 90’s a movie called “And the Band Played On” mapped out the history of the disease. I highly suggest you take the opportunity and watch it. The lesson it drives home is how important prevention and education are in empowering young people to fully understand the possible consequences of engaging in unprotected sex.
I was there when HIV hit, and I got a crash course in STDs and sexual health. Due to the fear of HIV and AIDS, there was a great deal of demand for sexual health education. There was a demand for new sex-ed curricula that schools and agencies could use to educate young people, and HIV education did become mandatory in California schools during this period.
As a sexual health educator, I was encouraged and excited about the materials we were writing and the thought that we could really make an impact by adequately educating young people– not only about diseases, but about their sexual health as well. Unfortunately, the openness to comprehensive sex education lasted only a short time before we entered the age of the “abstinence only” education. The “wisdom” behind this was that if we taught young people only abstinence education, with a fear-based curriculum, young people would stop engaging in sex altogether. Take a moment and Google how successful that was.
Abstinence-only education has failed for a variety of reasons. By the time teens are in 11th or 12th grade, both boys and girls are hardwired to procreate. Remember– not that long ago we were dead by the time we were 50 (no time for perimenopause). Our bodies were designed for early marriage and babies so our species would survive. Things have changed, but we still tell young people not to have sex before they’re married—even though they’re waiting longer and longer to marry and they’re bombarded with sexual imagery and messaging their whole lives.
In all my years as an educator I have felt that without comprehensive sex education it would be very difficult to decrease the teen STD rate. Unfortunately I’ve been correct, since the rates have only gone up. Want to know how much? Stay tuned for the stats in my next post…