STDs and the Stories We Tell

STDs and the Stories We Tell

Yesterday we posted a speech by Orson Scott Card describing the power of narrative and storytelling in shaping a culture’s values and expectations. An interesting example of this is the story our society is telling (or isn’t telling) about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

You may not have known but April is National STD Awareness Month. This means that organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control, Planned Parenthood, MTV, and the Kaiser Family Foundation are banding together to get the word out about STDs. This month’s theme—GYT: Get Yourself Tested.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the importance of getting yourself tested for sexually transmitted diseases if you have chosen to be sexually active. However, we have to ask, what story is this theme telling about STDs and normal sexual behavior?

Why was the theme not “ABM: Abstinence Before Marriage—Never worry about STDs”? Or “FIM: Fidelity in Marriage—Protect your partner”? Or how about leaving out the abbreviations and going with “Safer sex isn’t safe sex”? But then, we must also ask at a more fundamental level, why is it not National STD Prevention Month rather than STD Awareness Month?

The answer is simple: True prevention requires abstinence, monogamy, and self-restraint. These things do not fit within the story our culture tells itself about sexuality.

The story currently being told about sexuality is that no one can truly be expected to wait until marriage to be sexually active. Restraint and responsibility are outdated virtues. And you have a right to do whatever you want with your body, whenever and wherever you want.

This story is difficult to match with an effective strategy for battling the spread of infectious diseases that has reached epidemic proportions due to promiscuous sexual practices. This dissonance translates into half-hearted and misguided education efforts that focus on awareness rather than prevention, “safer sex” rather than abstinence, and testing rather than self-restraint.

If you visit the GYT website, hosted by MTV, you will notice that abstinence, fidelity, monogamy, or any other practices of self-restraint are never mentioned. The message is simply testing, condoms, music, and education (as if knowing something is risky makes it less risky).

Unfortunately, the conflict between the story society is telling about one’s sexual rights and the severity of the STD problem even causes huge failures in efforts at awareness and education.

William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, recently published an article on RHRealityCheck.org that identified a few of these gaps. Smith is “a genuine expert,” as he is described in The Washington Times, in the sexual health field, but even he was surprised by some of the holes in his knowledge about the prevalence and the severity of the STD problem.

Here are just a two things he has learned about STDs since taking his job as executive director. Both of these issues are conveniently left out of our national narrative about sexuality.

1. “We are on the verge of a highly untreatable gonorrhea epidemic.”

Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that most people think is both treatable and under control. Unfortunately, neither of these things will be true for much longer.

Like bacteria will do, gonorrhea has been evolving to resist treatment. As a result, Smith reports:

“We now have just a single class of antibiotics left to treat gonorrhea but resistance is also developing with this class and the pipeline of new drugs is nearly empty. Future treatment might require multiple drug combinations or multiple doses over a longer period of time and even then, we are not sure what the future holds.”

Gonorrhea is also one of the most commonly reported STDs in the United states. 336,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported in 2008 alone. When this dangerous bacteria is no longer treatable, these numbers will rapidly become more terrifying.

2. “We are about to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory in the battle against syphillis.”

Syphillis, once on its way to elimination, is now on the rise. Syphillis reached has reached its newest high since 1995, with 13,500 reported cases in 2008. Smith also reports 431 reported cases of congenital syphillis, resulting in at least two identifiable deaths. This is unacceptable.

Furthermore, the disease is now most rapidly spreading in the community of men who have sex with men, where commonly risky sexual behavior will only speed the spread of the disease.

So as Smith asks, “Where is the outcry?” Where is the swine-flu-like hysteria? Where are the national efforts to stop the spread of these very real and very threatening diseases?

Unfortunately, this type of outcry doesn’t fit into the story we are telling ourselves about sex, and it, therefore, doesn’t exist.

But you needn’t worry too long. Your children can visit MTV’s GYTNow.org to learn more about getting themselves tested for the STDs they already have, while watching a countdown of “Kayla’s” favorite music videos about sex. — That will definitely stop the spread.

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