An article earlier this week discussing a recent Center for Disease Control report warns of "record high" numbers of sexually transmitted diseases. Over two million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and primary and secondary syphilis were reported in 2016 — "the highest number ever" — with dramatic increases in each disease over the previous one-year period. While most of these new infections (1.6 million) were cases of chlamydia — which continues to affect more women than men — the most significant uptick in gonorrhea infection rates was in gay and bisexual men, as were most new syphilis cases. The CDC also reports that half of the men diagnosed with syphilis between 2015 and 2016 were already living with HIV.
CDC physicians expressed particular concern about the health implications for babies born with STDs, and about newer, antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea. Jonathan Mermin, M.D., MPH, Director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said, "Increases in STDs are a clear warning of a growing threat. STDs are a persistent threat, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond." Unfortunately, this is not a new trend.
We say we treat STDs as a public health crisis, but we're not being completely honest. It's not that we haven't thrown billions of dollars into research for cures; we have. (The National Institutes of Health estimates that research spending on sexually transmitted diseases will be $273 million in 2017 alone.) But our messaging is — to say the least — inconsistent.
Let's compare other human behaviors that cause serious health problems.
Take smoking, for example. We plow millions of dollars into research and treatments for emphysema, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But we don't just try to cure smoking-related illness, nor do we claim to be solving the problem by improving access to chemotherapy. We also tell people, stop smoking.
Nor do we try to reduce alcoholism and drug abuse solely by improving the number and quality of rehab centers. We also tell people, don't abuse alcohol. Don't drink and drive. Don't take drugs recreationally or abuse prescription drugs.
The same could be said for obesity.
Most importantly — for the most part — we're not glorifying smoking or obesity in movies, TV or advertising. The days of filmmakers portraying smoking as glamorous are long gone. Cigarette advertising has been banned on TV for decades. Media depictions of smoking are negative or nonexistent. Hundreds of statutes and ordinances have been passed that ban smoking in most public places. Neither Hollywood nor Madison Avenue is trying to pitch obesity to the average American.
Do we take the same approach, as a culture, to irresponsible sexuality?
To the contrary, the pervasive message in books, music, film and television is "anything goes," as long as it's consensual. (And the age of "consent" keeps getting younger.)
OK, well, smoking, drinking, using drugs and overeating start out "consensual" as well. That doesn't stop us as a culture from discouraging them.
(It's worth mentioning that two of America's institutions that have done the most to promote irresponsible sexuality — academia and Hollywood — are suffering widespread consequences of that encouragement — particularly sexual exploitation and assault. Why are they shocked?)
No one wants to be the party pooper who says, stop sleeping around, despite the host of individual and societal ills this would alleviate. Not just the explosion of sexually transmitted diseases, but out-of-wedlock births (with their attendant problems and societal costs); divorce and broken families (caused by infidelity); anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders in sexually active youth; and abortion.
If a private company's products, services or business practices were causing this much individual illness and social cost, we'd demand they be shut down. But because our society has decided to worship sex, it's untouchable.
One problem is that sexual mores are frequently dismissed as a vestige of history, or tied to specific religious beliefs. Too few consider whether there might be social and scientific reasons for moral principles which — until relatively recently — were considered uncontroversial in this country. (No, that doesn't mean everyone followed them. That's never the case.)
A better way to look at sexual morality is like nutritional recommendations. No one screams, "Prude! Freak! Buzzkill!" at people who tell us we should reduce sugar intake, eat more vegetables, avoid processed foods and exercise more. We may ignore their admonitions, but we don't accuse them of trying to shove religion down our throats.
Our current situation is absurd. It's anti-intellectual. It's anti-scientific. It's unevolved. Precisely because sex is a powerful human urge, it has the potential to be deeply damaging without reasonable, self-imposed controls supported by societal messaging. An advanced society shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge that some types of sexual behaviors are healthy and productive, and some are unhealthy and irresponsible.
Instead, we let predators prey on women and children, we foster sexual assault and "rape culture," we tolerate mental and emotional illness in our youth, and we wring our hands as diseases become avoidable epidemics.