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Blaming Sex Talk ‘Squeamishness’ for Rise in STDs

No, really. The CDC thinks Americans don't talk about sex enough.

by
Clayton E. Cramer

Bio

November 25, 2009 - 12:06 am

This is very odd. I’ve just read a news story from Reuters dated November 16, 2009, but the opening sentence doesn’t describe the United States anytime in the last 30 years or so:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – American squeamishness about talking about sex has helped keep common sexually transmitted infections far too common, especially among vulnerable teens, U.S. researchers reported Monday.

Latest statistics on chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis show the three highly treatable infections continue to spread in the United States.

“Chlamydia and gonorrhea are stable at unacceptably high levels and syphilis is resurgent after almost being eliminated,” said John Douglas, director of the division of sexually transmitted diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have among the highest rates of STDs of any developed country in the world,” Douglas added in a telephone interview.

“American squeamishness about talking about sex”?

This must have fallen through a wormhole from the 1950s or 1960s. Maybe, maybe, in some parts of America this was still true in the 1970s. If there is anything that Americans are squeamish about, it isn’t “talking about sex” — endlessly, in print, too loudly on cell phones in public places, in comedy routines, television, and movies. And pretty obviously, Americans aren’t just talking about sex, or we wouldn’t be having this STD problem.

We live in a society about as open and insistent about talking about sex and having sex as any society in history. Even Roman society could not have been much more willing to talk about sex than ours is. It is a continual source of discussion in endless varieties, variations, and styles in America today.

The distribution of those STDs isn’t exactly even across American society, suggesting that this “squeamishness” isn’t even distributed. The article reports that:

Blacks, who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for about 71 percent of reported gonorrhea cases and almost half of all chlamydia and syphilis cases in 2008. … Black women 15 to 19 had the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

I guess that the “squeamishness” about talking about sex is especially severe in the black community. Rap music, for example, dominated by black performers and supposedly an “authentic” cultural expression of black America, must never talk about sex! And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

Another one of those groups that must be really, really hung about talking about sex has an even more severe problem:

Sixty-three percent of syphilis cases were among men who have sex with men.

If you haven’t been paying attention, “men who have sex with men” is the preferred term now for homosexuals, bisexuals, and all those straight men … who have sex with other men. Since homosexual and bisexual men are about 4 to 4.5 percent of the adult male population of the U.S., that means that 63 percent of syphilis cases are in a group that constitutes no more than 2 percent of the U.S. population.

Pretty obviously, the reporter’s claim is wrong. It isn’t “squeamishness about talking about sex.” It could be squeamishness about talking about STDs. But the real issue isn’t an unwillingness to talk about STDs. It’s an unwillingness to take steps that would substantially reduce the risk of getting an STD. As the expert interviewed for the article points out:

Douglas said children and teens need to know about condom use, and should limit their number of sex partners and avoid sex with people who do have many other sex partners.

Since Douglas’s use of “children and teens” implies that those under 13 are children, would it perhaps make sense to suggest that those under 13 shouldn’t be having sex? Or is that just too prudish and narrow-minded?

And you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in America, anyone at all, who doesn’t know about condom use yet — though tragically, condoms aren’t the panacea that some people think. Condoms sometimes fail, and even condoms that don’t fail may not be preventing the spread of some STDs. A 2002 study concluded:

Available data are too inconsistent to provide precise estimates. However, they suggest that while condoms may not prevent HPV infection, they may protect against genital warts, CIN II or III, and ICC.

The second part of Douglas’s advice is extraordinarily important (especially in light of the deficiencies of condoms): Limit your number of sexual partners and avoid sex with people who won’t do so. It turns out that the speed with which an STD spreads through a population is the square of the increase in the number of sexual partners. (Here’s an application of permutations and combinations that you didn’t even consider in calculus class, I’m sure.)

I hear an awful lot of screeching from the Democrats in Congress about “bending the curve of health care costs.” This news article tells us that there were 1.2 million cases of chlamydia reported in 2008, almost 337,000 cases of gonorrhea, and 13,500 cases of syphilis. If each such case costs someone $100 (which is no more than one doctor’s visit and antibiotics), that’s at least $155 million.

Somehow, I can’t imagine the Democrats deciding to “bend the health care cost curve” by promoting self-restraint about sex. Can you?

Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at the College of Western Idaho. His most recent book is My Brother Ron: A Personal and Social History of the Deinstitutionalization of the Mentally Ill (2012). He is raising capital for a feature film about the Oberlin Rescue of 1858.
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