You're Not Superman, You Know
It's amazing how well my generation - those in their late teens and early 20's - can distance themselves from topics that have everything to do with us. For example, driving fatalities and alcohol abuse. It's staggering the number of teens who die from car accidents related to substance abuse, as well as those who spend their high school and college years with a beer bottle in hand.
It's even scarier to look at how many teenagers don't know BASIC FACTS about sex and sexuality. This is something I've known for a long time as a Scarleteen staff member, but it doesn't change reality.
I have countless close friends who come to me for sex advice. No, I don't walk around with Cosmo magazine in my bag and I don't give out advice on the 10 best position to achieve an orgasm or what your man REALLY wants you to know about pleasuring him. I'm talking basic, fundamental information. I haven't been taking my birth control on time for a week, should I be worried about pregnancy? I've been having weird discharge, what does that mean? My boyfriend wants to try anal sex, but the idea makes me nervous. What can I do to better prepare myself?
I had one question from one of my best friends a few months ago, however, that left me without words.
The scene: my dorm room, early evening, during a study session that turned out to be less studying than originally planned. My phone rang and the caller ID showed my friend K's* number, so I left the room and answered in the hall.
Me: "Hey, K, where are you? We've been planning on studying all week."
K: "Abbie, something is really wrong. I need you to bring me to the hospital."
Before I continue, I'd like to mention that I've brought K to the hospital before; she has, for lack of a better term, some odd health issues that arise when she's stressed. It didn't surprise me, given the recent relationship stress she'd be under (breaking up with a long time boyfriend who was borderline emotionally abusive and manipulative, falling into a depressive state because of it, hooking up with several guys as a means of dealing, more depressive states...I think you get the picture) that she was feeling crappy, so I was more than willing to help.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.
I drove K to the hospital almost an hour away. She was complaining of lower abdominal pain stemming from her ovaries. A CT scan and two ultrasounds later, they diagnosed her with ovarian cysts caused by her birth control. That wasn't, however, the real issue. The doctor had also done a pap smear, pelvic exam and cultures for an STI panel. He told K that she likely had an infection of some sort, and that the cultures would come up in a few days. We stayed at her house that weekend and waited.
Monday morning came, and the call that came from the hospital was not a welcome one. K had contracted chlamydia from one her more recent sexual partners.
As far as bad news goes, chlamydia is one of the better ones. Though it can cause serious health problems and infertility if not caught, it's very treatable with antibiotics, and does not remain in your system once treated, unlike other diseases, which can be suppressed or remain dormant but can never be completely gotten rid of. Still, I sat and listened to K as she was given the news, I saw the tears streaming down her face. "How could I have been so stupid," she said. "I was only worried about pregnancy. I never thought anything like this would happen to me. I was always careful. I've been tested before, and I made my partners get tested, too. I just don't understand. What am I going to do, Abbie?" That was one question I simply didn't have answer to, and it absolutely killed me.
Maybe it's because I knew what had happened. Maybe it was because she is a close friend. Maybe it was because 1 in 4 teens in the United States have an STI or will contract one. For whatever reason, I felt my eyes wet as I hugged her.
The chlamydia has been cleared from K's system now. But the fact that she became part of another teen sex statistic can never be changed. She blames herself for being stupid, ignorant, and for not insisting on condoms. "It was just sex," she said. "There weren't supposed to be any strings attached."
There is no such thing as sex without strings. Though angry and hurt, K contacted the sexual partners she'd had while at school to tell them they needed to be tested. The responses were mixed. One thanked her, one called her things I can't in good faith repeat, and the other denied it and hung up. Which one gave her chlamydia in the first place is probably something she'll never know, but at this point, it doesn't really matter anyway.
Case and point: this happens. It's real. Someone you know might be living with an sexually transmitted infection and not even know it. Or maybe they do, and are too ashamed to say anything. Either way, this is one of the few instances where you can and should be adamant about taking precautionary measures. Know your STI status and insist that your partners be tested before you engage in sexual activity. Use condoms whenever possible (this includes oral and manual sex) if you don't know your partner's status (and even if you do, they are never a bad idea). The economy is in the toilet, and money is tight, but take care of yourself NOW and you can avoid costly medical bills later down the road. The few dollars you put toward a box of a condoms and an STI panel may save a lot more than just your money.
And if you are tight on cash, look for a free clinic. Many health clinics offer free or sliding-scale testing. Check out Planned Parenthood's website (http://www.plannedparenthood.org/) to find a clinic near you.
*I got K's permission to share her story, but her named has been changed to make some anonymity possible.