At some point in your life, you’ve heard about STDs - hopefully during a comprehensive sex-ed seminar as opposed to late-night television, movies, or some derisive media slam at an upcoming starlet. Unfortunately, the latter is more likely the case. As a result, most people unwittingly see themselves as being immune to the risk of an STD. That sort of thing only happen to certain kinds of people - and maybe porn star - right?
The Shocking Truth About STDs
Wrong. As someone who's never viewed herself as "that kind of person" and who’s not so much as even tried to tape any of her private sexual forays (yet), I can assure you that STDs (genital herpes in my case) happen to all kinds of people. What might surprise you even more is that they don’t always indicate the end of a healthy sex life either. (Read more about Jenelle in Honey, I Have Herpes.)
Here's another thing you may not know. While you should do everything you can to prevent being infected, STDs are not always 100 percent avoidable - at least not if you want to have sex. Men cannot be tested for HPV (outside of being diagnosed based on visual symptoms), and typical STD tests for both sexes usually only include three or four of the more common STDs: syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. That sounds comprehensive, until you find out that according to the World Health Organization, there are more than 30 different sexually transmissible bacteria, viruses and parasites, many of which do not present noticeable symptoms.
I'm not trying to freak you out. What I'm getting at is that STDs can be unknowingly transmitted or contracted by anyone who's sexually active, whether they engage in vaginal, anal or oral sex. Here's why - and what that means for you.
People Aren’t Getting Tested
In a national survey of US physicians done by the Guttmacher Institute, less than one-third said they routinely screened patients for STDs. Less than one-third! That means most of the women who think they’re getting tested for all STDs during their annual pap smears are mistaken. In fact, less than half of adults ages 18 to 44 have ever been tested for an STD other than HIV or HPV, and even then, pap smears only test for high-risk strains of HPV.
More than 6 million people acquire HPV each year, and by age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired a genital HPV infection. Did you know that if you’ve had an abnormal pap smear, it was most likely the result of an HPV infection?
I'll bet you didn't. But the questions is, why didn’t you know this?
Most people with HPV do not develop noticeable symptoms, and there’s an incredible stigma attached to identifying an abnormal pap smear as an STD, so most doctors don’t communicate the specifics. They tell you it’s common, it’s generally nothing to worry about, and you either schedule an additional procedure to remove abnormal cells or another pap smear three to six months sooner than usual to ensure the infection has not progressed.
And those are just statistics for HPV. It’s no wonder overall STD statistics are so staggering.
More than Half of All People...
More than half of all people will have an STD at some point in their lifetime (some curable, some not). The estimated total number of people living in the U.S. with a viral STD (like HPV) is more than 65 million. That's about equal to the population of France - and growing. Every year, there are at least 19 million new cases of STDs, and many experts think that number is probably much higher. Of the STDs that are diagnosed, only a few - gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and hepatitis A and B - are required to be reported to state health departments or the CDC. My case is an excellent example of the immense under-reporting that occurs. I was diagnosed with genital herpes by sight by my family doctor 14 years ago, but neither genital herpes nor diagnosis by sight are included in the number of new STD infections recorded each year. I was never included among new herpes cases, and I'll bet I'm far from the only one.
In fact, it's been estimated that as many as one in five Americans has genital herpes, a lifelong (but manageable) infection. Ninety percent of them have no idea; they have no symptoms. Unfortunately, they can still transmit the virus. Some experts take it even further, estimating that more than 50 million adults in the U.S. are living with genital herpes, a number that's growing by a rate of 1.6 million new infections each year. Based on those numbers, up to 40 percent of all men and half of all women could be infected by 2025.
My point isn't to scare you, but the numbers are scary. So, what can you do to avoid getting infected?
Your best bet is to amp up your sexual health knowledge (you’re already reading Kinkly, so, you’re halfway there) and get smart about how to have safer sex. This includes:
- Talking to all your partners about safer sex before getting busy
- Getting full STD screenings and sexual health exams at least once a year and more often if you have new or multiple partners
- Using barriers consistently and correctly
- Making safer lifestyle choices to reduce risk
Sex is inherently risky, both for our hearts and our health. You must understand the risks you're taking in your sex life, what level of risk you're willing to accept, and keeping any all risk as low as possible. (To learn more, check out The Ultimate Guide to Safer Sex.)
If You’re Like Me ...
I have herpes. And if all these statistics about STDs didn't shock you, this might: Having an STD does not have to define your life or your sexual health. Having an STD has not limited my relationships or narrowed my potential. When you begin to realize the vast number of sexually transmitted infections occurring annually - let alone the ones that can't be cured - it's easier to understand how I and many other like me can continue to date, love, and have healthy sexual relationships, despite living with an STD.
The statistics about STDs can be scary, but the worst thing you can do is ignore them. When it comes to your sex life, savvy is sexy.
Jenelle Marie Pierce is the Executive Director of The STI Project: Breaking the Stigma®, the Founder of the herpes activists network, HANDS, and a Spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com. As an STI+ Sexual Health Educator and content creator, Jenelle has been dismantling stigma by reclaiming STI narratives® through awareness, education, and acceptance since 2012.