Long-term health is at stake every time teens have sex.
"I always thought of myself as a clean person. I shower every day. My girlfriend was clean. In fact, she was beautiful. But she gave me gonorrhea. I couldn't believe it. Now I feel dirty, like I'm infested with bugs or something."
"I hadn't known Tim very long, but he was such a gorgeous guy, I let myself go. I thought about using some kind of protection, but what was I supposed to do -- stop everything and order him to put on a condom? He probably would have gotten mad. I was on the Pill anyway. So it just seemed easier to forget it. A month later, I found out I had genital warts."
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) spread faster among teen-agers than any other group. STDs can sicken and kill and can make their victims unable to have children. They can be transmitted to babies during childbirth, causing blindness, retardation and death.
Many teens with STDs have no idea they are infected and, therefore, do not seek treatment. They continue unknowingly to spread these diseases. Every year, three million teens get an STD. Sexually active young people have a 50-50 chance of getting an STD by age 25.
Some STDs can be treated and cured. Some cannot be cured. Some are developing a resistance to antibiotics. Some STDs cause sores in the genital area that give HIV an easy entry point into the body.
It is estimated that one out of four sexually active teen-age girls has an STD. Women catch these diseases more easily than men due to body differences. During unprotected intercourse with an infected partner, women are twice as likely to catch some STDs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Because STDs are harder to detect in women, some women are unaware they are infected until their reproductive systems are so damaged that they can never have children. It is estimated that 15 to 30 percent of U.S. couples who can't have children were made infertile by STDs.
There is no way that teens can know if their partner is free from infection. Partners may not be truthful, may be too embarrassed to admit they are infected, or may have a disease and not know it. In fact, a partner may have two sexually transmitted diseases at the same time and not know it.
More than 25 diseases, including chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, human papillomavirus, and HIV/AIDS, are sexually transmitted. They are spread by oral, anal and genital sex, and by close body contact. Condoms used with spermicide are generally a highly effective way of preventing the spread of many STDs. However, some of these diseases can be transmitted even with condom use because sores can be present in areas not covered by the condom.
In many cases, condoms are not used as effectively as possible by teens. Even though most teen-agers know better, they often don't use latex condoms consistently. Many are too embarrassed, shy, uncertain, or guilty to insist on condom use. A few thrill-seeking teens actually find sex more exciting because of the danger of pregnancy and disease and, therefore, choose not to use protection. And unless both partners are well educated about condom use, there can be problems with storage, usage and breakage. For example, if a boy keeps a condom in his wallet for months waiting for the chance to use it, his movements -- sitting down then standing up, over and over -- eventually cause the tip of the condom, the most vital part, to rub and wear away.
Risk of AIDS
The most frightening STD is HIV, which destroys the immune system, making it impossible for the body to fight off other infections and cancers. AIDS is the final and fatal stage of HIV infection. One out of every four new HIV infections occurs to a teen-ager.
Because they've never known anyone with AIDS, it is difficult for teens to imagine they are at risk. The reason they don't see anyone their age sick with AIDS is that the virus can live and multiply silently in the body for years. Teens they know may have HIV and may be transmitting it to others even though they show no symptoms and have no idea they are infected. Teen-agers who contract HIV/AIDS will likely become ill, even die, when they are much older -- even in their late 20s. That's why teens don't see friends their age with this disease.
Young people assume their crowd of friends is "clean." But if just one person in their group has sex with someone outside their group or school, they can unknowingly introduce HIV to their circle of friends.
In Jamestown, N.Y., a young man infected 20 girls, some as young as 13, with the AIDS virus in 1997.
One of his victims explained that she was just looking for "someone to love me. ... I was in love. I'd have done anything for him."
Another said, "He told me I was pretty, that I had a nice personality, stuff like that. ... Having unprotected sex, I don't do it often unless I'm in love with someone."
Can't trust anyone
Can sexually active teens trust that anybody is HIV-free? No. Partners may be too embarrassed to admit to multiple partners, same-sex partners, or needle use. In one study, half the young men and 40 percent of the young women said they would lie about the number of partners they had slept with. Some males said they would lie to a girl and say they'd had a negative HIV test.
Is a negative HIV test really proof that a partner is not infected? No. An HIV test looks for antibodies in the blood, but it can take up to six months after initial infection for these antibodies to appear. If someone takes an HIV test during the six months before the antibodies are present in the blood, the test could be negative -- even though that person does have HIV and can pass it on to his or her lover.
If both partners begin their sexual relationship as virgins, if one of them has sex, even one time, with anyone else during the relationship, she or he could contract HIV and transmit it to the other partner. In one survey of college students from across the country, almost half confessed that they had cheated on their partner.
HIV/AIDS is not spread through casual contact. It is one disease that teens can make a decision NOT to get. It is acquired through risky behavior and poor choices. Decisions about becoming sexually active are truly life-and-death decisions. Not having sex is the most certain way for most teens to avoid HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.
-- This is part six of an eight-part series of columns on teen-age sexuality by Susan Pogany, author of "Sex Smart: 501 Reasons to Hold Off on Sex," available in local bookstores.