In the second of a two-part series on youth and health, see why
STDs are rapidly spreading across America
– and how the cause might be more fundamental than you think
Most people in America think they know the facts about sexually transmitted diseases and the importance of practicing safe sex, but many have no idea.
A new survey shows many Americans are involved in risky sexual behavior, and seemingly simple things such as proper use of condoms and the avoidance of alcohol and drugs in potentially dangerous situations are to blame.
The survey, conducted by MSNBC and market-research firm Zogby International, says millions of Americans are living with STDs – and some don’t even know it. Nineteen million new cases of STDs are reported every year, and one in five Americans has genital herpes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was cited in the study. At least one million Americans are living with AIDS.
The scarier part, according to the study, is that many Americans don’t know they are infected with the diseases, so the actual numbers likely are significantly higher.
More than 56,000 adults ranging in age from 18 to 70 responded to the anonymous survey, which was developed with the help of sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
Released last month, the survey included questions about participants’ sexual histories and practices, how knowledgeable they thought they were about STDs and demographic information such as gender, age and ethnic background.
The results include:
– 39 percent of respondents said they always ask whether a new partner is infected with HIV or other STDs. About one-third said they never ask about the status of prospective partners’ sexual health.
– 44 percent of African Americans said they talk to their partners about STDs, compared to 38 percent of whites and 40 percent of Hispanics.
– At least half of respondents said they worry about contracting herpes from oral sex, but not all are exactly sure how the disease is spread.
Lack of communication between partners plus improper use of condoms is a dangerous combination that is partly responsible for the spread of STDs, said a physician’s assistant with Planned Parenthood in Gilroy.
“It’s actually frightening how many of my patients either aren’t using condoms correctly or aren’t using them at all,” she said. “If you aren’t comfortable talking about STDs or you aren’t comfortable putting a condom on a penis, you aren’t ready to have sex.”
Some women the assistant talked to said they don’t look when putting a condom on their partner, or they don’t look when their partner is putting on a condom, so neither partner is sure if they are properly protected.
“It’s not a moral question of right or wrong; it’s pure science. Using a condom is the best way to protect yourself from STDs other than not having sex at all,” the assistant said. “Using condoms should be standard practice for anyone having sex.”
Improper protection has led to a “huge resurgence” in gonorrhea and chlamydia, STDs that generally don’t cause any outward signs of infection such as discharge or lesions, she said.
A 2002 Planned Parenthood study found that about 40 percent of college-aged men don’t put condoms on correctly. To put on a condom correctly, first check the expiration date, then tear open the wrapping either at the notch provided or in the middle of the packet.
Squeeze the tip of the condom between your thumb and first two fingers to get rid of any air and to allow room for semen and any further enlargement of the penis.
Place the rolled-up condom on the tip of the penis with the hand pinching the end, and roll the condom down with the other hand. If the man is uncircumcised, pull back the foreskin first.
If the condom doesn’t roll down easily, it’s probably on inside out. Discard this condom and begin again with a new one.
The condom needs to be unrolled all the way to the base of the penis.
After intercourse, the man should hold the base of the condom around his penis as he pulls out to prevent the condom from slipping off inside the woman and to avoid spillage.
Use each condom only once. Don’t store condoms in a hot area and never in a wallet. The condom should be in place before any physical contact between genitalia. Use only water-based lubricants with condoms.
Though condoms will greatly reduce transmission of STDs between partners, they don’t provide 100 percent protection against certain diseases such as herpes and vaginal warts, the assistant said. For example, herpes can be transmitted when flakes of skin from the pubic area – an area not covered by a condom – shed onto another person’s pubic area, even when the person with herpes is not having an outbreak of sores.
Alcohol and drugs were another factor to blame for the spread of STDs, according to the MSNBC and Zogby survey. Nearly two-thirds of survey respondents said they’ve had unsafe sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
“Getting drunk and making bad choices go hand in hand,” the physician’s assistant said. “You need to have a plan. I think everyone should have a designated driver and a designated moral advisor who can step in and say, ‘No, you’re drunk, you’re not going to go home with this person.'”
Here are some other tips to maintain good sexual health:
– Urinate after sex. It can help reduce the risk of urinary tract infections.
– If you’re a woman, don’t douche, which is the application of a water solution intended to clean the vagina.
– Regularly get tested for STDs, and also have regular checkups.