By Joey Boots-Ebenfield
I’ve gotten used to hearing myths and misinformation when I talk about sex with fellow teens.
And I talk about sex often in my role as an 17-year-old peer educator with the Planned Parenthood Get Real Teen Council (GRTC) — a year-long high school sexual health program for 10th-12th graders who are trained to facilitate sex education workshops and serve as resources for peers, families and communities.
If teens are uncomfortable talking about topics related to sex and sexuality, or don’t have a trusted source of information about their health, it’s easy for all kinds of misinformation to spread. And of course, there's the Internet, where bad information is often rampant, so it’s not always a reliable place to find accurate health information.
The subject of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is no exception. I’ve heard some pretty interesting misconceptions about what STDs are and what it’s like to get tested. One myth is that STDs have obvious symptoms, like localized pain or some other physical sign.
In fact, this is quite the opposite! STDs often show NO symptoms. This myth is especially dangerous because it means that someone can have an STD and not even know it. As a result, many STDs go untreated, which can cause cause some pretty nasty complications.
So it’s incredibly important for people to get themselves tested, because getting tested is the only way to know for certain whether or not you have an STD.
Lots of people imagine that getting tested will involve uncomfortable probing by Q-tips and needles; but in reality, it's painless, easy, and quick — and anyone who’s sexually active should get tested regularly.
That’s just one of many facts I get to share with my peers during classes and workshops. And since April is STD Awareness Month, my fellow peer educators and I are participating in the national “Get Yourself Tested” campaign and helping to set the record straight about STDs.
Here are the facts on STDs:
•The most common symptom of an STD is no symptom. That’s why anyone who is sexually active should get tested for STDs. The only way to truly know whether or not you have one is to get tested.
•STDs are a real threat to young people’s health. The fact that many STDs can go unnoticed makes this next fact all the more worrying: 50 percent of the 20 million STDs that are contracted each year are in people from the ages of 16 to 25, even though that category makes up only a quarter of the sexually active population. And in Massachusetts, young people ages 15-24 represent 68 percent of reported chlamydia infections and 44 percent of reported gonorrhea cases.
•Getting yourself tested for STDs is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Just like a trip to the doctor’s office for a routine exam, STD tests are an important part of staying healthy, something that every sexually active person should do regularly. Untreated, STDs can cause serious health problems like increased risk of cervical cancer and infertility.
•The good news is that most STDs, including HIV, are treatable, and many are curable. The sooner you know your status, the sooner you can get treated. Not all medical checkups include STD testing — so unless you ask to be tested, don’t assume you have been. It can be as easy as visiting plannedparenthood.org or asking your doctor, “Should I get tested for STDs?”
If there’s one thing I want every teen out there to know, it’s this: knowledge is power. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true. Having medically accurate information is the best way for people to take charge of their own sexual health.
I look forward to a day when everyone knows that STDs have no symptoms, and getting tested becomes a routine checkup for all sexually active people.
Joey Boots-Ebenfield is a high-school senior and member of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts Get Real Teen Council.