How Do Teen Couples Talk About STDs?
Originally Published: June 6, 2017
Revised: January 3, 2019
While pregnancy rates amongst U.S. teens are at a low, rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) for teens have been on the rise. Fewer unplanned pregnancies are great, but it’s important to also take the proper steps to reduce the risk of getting an STD. I talked to 19-year-old Jake from Jamison, PA, as well as 17-year-old Ally from Marlton, NJ, to get an idea of how they talk about STDs and safer sex.
Having the Conversation
“It wasn’t a big deal or anything,” 17-year-old Ally tells me when I ask about how she and her girlfriend began a dialogue about sex and STDs. “When we were thinking about going further and having sex, [STD protection] came up naturally, and she is my best friend, so nothing is ever really awkward between us.”
A partner who you can openly discuss safer sex with is ideal. Before you have sex with someone, you should feel able to ask them about their sexual history, like whether they’ve been tested for STDs or have ever contracted one. You shouldn’t put your health at risk in order to please a partner or avoid an awkward conversation.
But what if you’re not comfortable and it doesn’t come up naturally? Jake, 19, experienced what can happen if you don’t ask potentially awkward questions. Jake contracted chlamydia from having unprotected sex with someone he worked with. He didn’t have condoms on him and didn’t feel comfortable asking about her sexual history. A few weeks later, Jake found out he had chlamydia. He’s now in a committed relationship with a different girl and knows how hard the conversation about safer sex can be, especially now that he’s experienced having an STD and the stigma associated with it.
“I didn’t want to tell Kaitlin [his current partner] about having had chlamydia, but I had to be honest with her. She just asked if I was cured now, and I am,” he tells me. “I feel like she trusts me more and respects that I told her even though it isn’t a current issue.”
We can all strive to use appropriate safer-sex methods, regardless of how we identify.
Why Is Pregnancy the Priority?
Some couples, regardless of how comfortable they are with each other, still don’t think about the risk of STDs. At Sex, Etc., teens who are penile-vaginal sex ask questions all the time about their risk for pregnancy but seldom seem concerned about getting an STD. Why is that?
“It does feel like pregnancy is the more pressing issue,” Jake tells me when I ask him about why teens tend to put pregnancy prevention over STD protection. “If you’ve got a baby…that just affects your life more than an STD.”
Although some STDs are easily treatable with medication, why not practice safer sex and significantly reduce the risk of getting one in the first place? Plus, some STDs (HIV, human papillomavirus [HPV] and herpes) are viral. If they’re contracted, they don’t go away with medication the way bacterial infections do. Some viral STDs, like HPV, can clear up on its own, but it should still be monitored. Other viral STDs, like HIV and herpes, require treatment. All STDs require communication with your partners so you don’t infect them. By being mindful of the risks of STDs, you can take steps like practicing safer sex and getting tested to avoid the complications that come along with getting one. There are ways to reduce your risk of both pregnancy and STDs. It’s just a matter of finding the right methods that work for you!
What to Use?
“I never even really think about the fact that condoms protect against STDs too,” Jake tells me.
Condoms are a great way to combine pregnancy prevention with STD protection. If you’re going to use a condom to protect against STDs, it should be worn not only during penile-vaginal sex, but also during oral and anal sex—both of which can transmit STDs. Anyone with a penis can use a male or external condom during sex to reduce the risk of getting an STD. Female or internal condoms can be inserted into the vagina during penile-vaginal sex or the anus during penile-anal sex. The inner ring has to be removed before using an internal condom during anal sex.
Dental dams are another safer-sex method. These thin squares of latex can reduce the risk of STD transmission during oral sex on someone with a vulva or during oral-anal sex. They are not often covered in schools; this may be due to homophobia or a lack of knowledge. I ask Ally about why safer sex for same-sex couples is often ignored in schools. She tells me, “I think it’s not really normalized to use protection in female same-sex relationships. There’s no risk of pregnancy in sex between two cisgender women, so protection is largely ignored.”
But even if there is no possibility of pregnancy, it’s still important to be protected against STDs. A sole focus on pregnancy not only leaves information about STDs out for heterosexual couples, but also leaves out safer sex information for same-sex couples.
Dentals dams are also less accessible than external condoms; you can’t always find dental dams in drugstores. Ally tells me, “None of the lesbian couples I know use dental dams or anything. I don’t know if it’s because they don’t know or because of the stigma or just because they don’t feel there’s a risk. I mean, condoms are definitely more accessible than dental dams.” It’s true that while condoms can be readily bought at many convenience stores and drug stores, dental dams may be harder to find. It’s possible their lack of availability leads to lesbian and other couples simply not thinking about the risk. Dental dams may be available at Planned Parenthood clinics, or they can be made by cutting off the rim and the tip of an unused condom. You can then cut down the length of the condom so it forms a rectangle or square shape, which can be laid over the vulva or anus.
It’s also important to note that sexual orientation does not dictate behavior. Different types of couples—heterosexual and same-sex—can engage in different behaviors. And people who identify as gay or lesbian may engage in sexual behaviors with a different sex partner. People who identify as heterosexual may engage in behaviors with a same-sex partner. How you practice safer sex should be based on the behaviors you’re engaged in, not your orientation. Studies show that teens who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual who have sex with a partner of a different sex actually have higher rates of pregnancy than those who identify as heterosexual. We can all strive to use appropriate safer-sex methods, regardless of how we identify.
Whatever method of protection you’re using, getting tested for STDs can never hurt. Before he entered a long-term relationship, Jake was tested every few months for STDs. “I knew I was engaging in some risky stuff, but I obviously didn’t want any serious health issues. It wasn’t a big deal. No one has to know or anything. It’s easy and then you have that peace of mind,” he tells me.
After having an STD, Jake took the prescribed antibiotics for one week and then got tested again three months later. “They told me it should clear up in a week once I was done with the antibiotics, but I waited to make sure.” Getting tested is the only sure way to know you’re STD-free before engaging in sex again.* “Once the test came back negative, my sex life went back to normal, except with more condoms and protection,” Jake tells me.
Tackling the Stigma
Despite how common STDs are, people with STDs can be viewed as promiscuous or unclean. With so much stigma surrounding STDs, it can be difficult for people who had/have STDs to feel open discussing them.
“Having chlamydia, like the medical part, wasn’t different from any other sort of health issue you might have,” says Jake. “I just took medication for it. It was just the fact that it was an STD that sucked. I didn’t tell anyone or anything, and I only told Kaitlin [his current girlfriend] because we were having sex.”
People might feel more comfortable talking about STDs if they were less stigmatized, and then the rate of STDs might be reduced.
While many STDs pose no serious long-term risk if treated, there are ways to reduce your risk of getting one. Regardless of who you’re having sex with, you owe it to yourself to ensure you’re engaging in safe behaviors, for you and your partner.
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