ost people are aware that having unprotected sex with a partner carries a risk for infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other sexually transmitted diseases. Nevertheless, twelve million people in the United States are infected with an STD each year. Why is this? Are they misinformed about STDs and how they are spread? Do they think they are not in a risk group? Do they deny the risk in the heat of the moment? Do they not understand what “safe sex” is and what it isn’t? All of these reasons and more explain why there is an epidemic of STDs in this country even in an age of increased media attention to the problem.
Eighty-five percent of people diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection are between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Since adolescence is a time when experimentation with sexuality begins, teenagers don’t have much chance of avoiding infection with an STD unless someone talks with them clearly and accurately about sexually transmitted infections and about exactly how to have safe sex. As earlier discussions in this book have made clear, the health and other consequences of STDs range from minor nuisances to major threats, even death. To protect yourself from infection is the first step. Acting on that understanding by only having sex that is safe is an investment in your future health, your ability to have children, your relationships, perhaps your livelihood, and even your life.
First a word of caution about what follows. Some of it may be overwhelming. As I have said before in this book, having sex always involves some risk, if not for a sexually transmitted infection, then an emotional risk. But it would be absurd to suggest that people should avoid sex altogether, for it is a natural part of life for most people. Rather my intent is to teach those who are sexually active how to recognize the symptoms if they have an STD, how to obtain appropriate testing and treatment to maintain sexual health , how to communicate about sex in a way that will help protect them from getting an STD, and, in this chapter, how to practice safe sex (or “safer sex,” as it is often called—which really means, things people can do to lower their risk of acquiring an STD.