“Oh friend, the Pill isn’t protection. It prevents pregnancy, but not STD’s.”
“Look, I’m taking the Pill. I’m protected. Stop being in my face!”
I remember this conversation from college and I remember being absolutely floored that my friend, a bright articulate young woman, didn’t “get it” that the Pill wasn’t going to stop her from getting herpes or genital warts or, heaven forbid, AIDS. She just didn’t get it. And many more don’t either.
Of course, HIV/AIDS seems like such a way out there idea. Teenagers and young adults are fairly invicible and it takes some pretty hard knock close to home events for them to question their mortality. On my college campus, in my sphere of friends, nobody knew that they knew anyone with HIV or AIDS. It wasn’t really part of our world and all the media hype telling us to practice safe sex didn’t really jive with our experiences.
What did jive – at least for me – was the number of people with herpes. THAT was a sexually transmitted disease that I could wrap my head around. And in fact, my friend who was on the Pill, but refused to use condoms, ended up acquiring a nasty case of herpes. A few of my friends did.
I remember feeling a bit like the center of a bicycle tire and all the spokes were my friends and all of them were coming to me in tears, distraught and hurting and embarrassed and ashamed and lost. It was alarming to me just how few knew anything about what had happened, why it had happened and what to do.
I can’t tell you how appreciative I was during that time for Planned Parenthood which took people in, talked to them respectfully, gave them factual information and provided needed services. I can’t even remember how many friends I dragged down to Planned Parenthood to get their first exams or to get tested before starting off on a new relationship.
I was not a goody too-shoes, but I do have a bit of a cautious streak and somewhere along the way of my own growing up, the realization that there are serious things out there that can impact your life, kinda snuck into my consciousness. I think I was lucky.
Now, when I work with teens or talk to kids who are on the verge of being sexually active, I talk about HIV and AIDS, but I know that it doesn’t connect so I also stress all the other diseases that spread and the ways to prevent them and the ways to get checked. Herpes still seems to be the one that people react to the most. It’s not an end-of-the-world disease, but it’s certainly not a pleasant one and it’s able to be understood on a more tangible level.
I try to convey to the girls that they should be indignant and annoyed if a guy says he doesn’t want to use a condom. They should use that disdain for such an idea to dump him for someone better. I know a few young adults who pull this off very well and I think they share that same tone of voice with their friends – hopefully passing along the message that serious protection should be used all the time. But I also know a great many young adults who are having unprotected sex and getting pregnant. And I know a great many who are having “protected” sex because they have an implant to prevent getting pregnant. That’s NOT protection from STD’s and still people don’t get it.
I also know of a great many young adults who are moving on from one partner to the next. It’s scary and it speaks of how little we understand about how easily viruses spread – or how much control we have in our lives to prevent the spread of viruses.
In the month of January, 2011, nine new cases of HIV/AIDS were identified in the Fairbanks region of Alaska. Nine is a huge spike for a community in Alaska. The people infected were younger, four under the age of 20. Eight were male and one was female. Seven were in the US Army stationed in Fairbanks or had sexual partners in the military. When I read this, I couldn’t believe it was happening.
We do need to talk, talk, and talk some more with our friends and our partners and our teenagers and our pre-teens so that condoms are the norm for those engaged in sexual activity outside of a monogomous long term relationship where both partners have already been tested and cleared. It’s our bodies and possibly our lives or the possibility of creating new lives that are impacted.
There are a number of young adults that check in with me on occasion. I ask about their lives, jobs, kids, partners. I haven’t been having conversations about safe sex so today I Facebooked a few to ask. The conversation helps build the norm and wonderfully, they all were pretty dang on top of things. It kinda makes me teary because they’re such wonderful people in their own crazy testing limits young ways, and they all could remember where they learned about practicing safe sex – either in school, from a clinician, from a respected adult or even from a respected person on Facebook.