We know that people get sexually transmitted diseases. We can all remember the time when someone came into our health class in high school to show us scary pictures of what infected organs look like, strongly implying that engaging in sex would immediately cause our body parts to look similarly, and causing that ONE kid to pass out at the sight of some oozing orifice.
But not all of us have been up close and personal with an STD. (Or at least, we didn’t realize it at the time ... !)
So -- who has STDs? As is true in other realms of life -- there is a lot of disparity in the populations that are most affected by the infections. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, which looks at the rates and reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2009, STDs consistently impact certain groups more heavily than others.
To start with:
Due to a variety of factors -- both anatomical and societal -- women are more susceptible than men to sexually transmitted infections and rate of infection among women “was almost three times higher than among men”. The lining of the vagina is delicate and the moist environment is very conducive to bacterial growth.
Symptoms of STDs are less likely to be noticed in women, and more likely to be confused for something else like a yeast infection, natural discharge or sign of menstruation.
Furthermore, statistically speaking, a woman is more likely than a man to be coerced into sexual relations against her will, to be forced by circumstance to trade sex for money/food/shelter/etc., and to have less control over whether protection is utilized during intercourse.
2. Young Women
Young adults under age 25 are at higher risk for contracting STDs than adults, and according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 1 in 4 sexually active people between age 15 and 24 contract an STD each year (2006).
Young women under 25 are especially affected by chlamydia and gonorrhea, which are both usually asymptomatic and can therefore go undiagnosed for long periods of time.
3. Young Black Women
Both black and Hispanic women aged 20-24 show higher rates of STDs when compared to their male and white counterparts, but black women between 15 and 24 bear the greatest burden of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the United States.
In 2009, 1 in 10 of the reported cases of chlamydia, and close to 1 in 20 cases of gonorrhea were in young, black women. Unfortunately, due to the low testing rates among this population, it is likely these numbers are representative of only a portion of those infected with STDs.
It should also be noted that incidence of syphilis among young black men tripled between 2005 and 2009.
4. Young Black Women Who Live in the South
Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis alike are all more prevalent in southern states and Alaska than in the rest of the country. Ranked by rate of STD, the top five states are all located in the “deep south” (Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Arkansas, Texas -- not necessarily in that order, depending on the specific disease).
These rates can be attributed to policy decisions, existing socio-economic disparities, unequal access to preventive medical care, and a variety of other sociological factors.
IMPORTANT NOTE: While these groups are especially affected by STDs, it doesn’t mean other populations aren’t also severely impacted. Reports indicate that men who have sex with men also have disproportionately high rates of STDs across age, race and geographical location. Additionally, it doesn’t mean that being a young woman of color, living in certain areas of the country predisposes you to contract a sexually transmitted disease. Being educated, empowered and open to choosing a healthy lifestyle can go a long way.
What are these healthy choices? The best ways to prevent STD transmission are:
1. Get educated and be aware of symptoms and risk factors.
2. Use condoms or other barrier protection. Every. Single. Time.
3. Communicate openly and honestly with your partner(s) about sexual health and the risks involved in intimacy.
4. Get tested! Often! Sometimes it is the only way to know you are infected, and it can literally save your life.
Altman, Lawrence K. (March 2008) “Sex Infections Found in Quarter of Teenage Girls.” Science – New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/12/science/12std.html
Averting HIV and AIDS. (2011) “STD Statistics for the USA.” http://www.avert.org/std-statistics-america.htm
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009.) “Trends in Sexually Transmitted Diseases in the United States: 2009 National Data for Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Syphilis.”
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (April, 2011.) “CDC Fact Sheet: 10 Ways STDs Impact Women Differently Than Men.” www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/STDs-Women-042011.pdf
Hughes, Donna M., et al. (1998.) “Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation: United States of America.” Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. http://www.uri.edu/artsci/wms/hughes/usa.htm
Kaiser Family Foundation. (September 2006.) “Sexual Health Statistics for Teenagers and Young Adults in the United States.”
Reviewed September 16, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith