It’s STI Girl Summer. Arm Yourself.

If you get in a car, you might crash. If you eat food, you might get food poisoning. And if you’re having sex, you are risking an STI. “I don’t tell people you can avoid STIs,” says Dr. Ina Park, associate professor of Family and Community Medicine at UC San Francisco and medical consultant for the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC. “We’re all going to get an STI some day, or at least get exposed to one.”

Park literally wrote the book on STIs, and she’s perfectly clear: sexually transmitted infections are more common than we like to acknowledge. You may not be able to avoid them entirely, but you can reduce your chances of getting them, and plan to catch them immediately. “We might as well empower ourselves to take charge of our sexual health,” she says.

As social distancing restrictions relax, experts are bracing for a new onslaught of STI cases. The summer of 2021 has been referred to as the start of the new roaring 20s, the Whoring ‘20s, and Shot Girl Summer. But it’s just as likely to be the great summer of STIs. Why? Every year for the past six years of available data, the CDC reported that cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reached an all-time high. Basically, it’s STIs’ world, and we’re just exchanging fluids in it.

Why, god? What have we done to deserve this??

Why have STI rates climbed every year for the past half a decade? Dr. Gail Bolan, then-director of the Division of STD Prevention at the CDC summed up the factors in September 2020: “Poverty, unstable housing, drug use, stigma, lack of medical insurance or steady medical care; discrimination or mistrust of health systems; decreased condom use among vulnerable groups including young people and gay men; and cuts to STD prevention programs and services at the state and local level.”

In other words, until we create better systems for public health, people will be sick.

To be clear, STIs are rampant among educated people who are have ample resources, too. Lisa Wade, a professor studying sociology and gender at Tulane University, has been conducting hundreds of in-depth interviews with current students about their lives during the pandemic. In each interview, she asks: given the year-long lesson in infectiousness that is the pandemic, have you changed the way you think about sexually transmitted infections? “Most of them screw up their faces like I’ve asked them something very strange,” she says. “They’re just like ‘…no.’”

Wade says she couldn’t square the fact that undergraduates are getting tested up to three times a week for COVID, but aren’t necessarily making the leap to STI testing. One interviewee put it into perspective: “If you say have you gotten tested for COVID and [the other person] says yes, that’s all good. If you ask when they’ve last been tested for STIs, it implies that they’ve done something they shouldn’t have done,” the student told her. 

Having an STI does not mean you are dirty, have too much sex, or are deserving of shame. Many of them are quickly curable. But if you have an STI for a long time without knowing it, you can get seriously sick. Dr. Jessica Shepherd, an OB/GYN in Texas, warns that “some STIs left untreated can lead to serious health consequences, such as infertility in women, pelvic pain and abnormal bleeding.” 

The school systems that preached abstinence instead of teaching these facts did us a huge disservice. Now, we’re paying for it, when we should just be enjoying sex.

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