The 'everyone does it' hooey keeps the STD epidemic going

Minnesota's soaring rate of sexually transmitted disease [STD] is in the news again. At the national level, a recent study found that 25 percent of 14- to 19-year-old girls have at least one of four common STDs.

The solution? Enlightened folks tell us it's more sex education, counseling and treatment. They call for more tax-funded initiatives such as a $1.3 million bill for screening and public education recently considered by the Minnesota Legislature.

But few are talking about the real reason for the epidemic: too many kids are having sex at too young an age.

Try mentioning this at your next dinner party or parents meeting at school, and watch the eyes roll. What 1950s TV rerun are you living in? Sure, a little abstinence education never hurt anyone, the common wisdom goes, but we all know -- wink, wink -- that kids are going to "do it."

This idea is one of the biggest cons of our generation. At least one group understands this -- the 53 percent of high school students who reported that they had never had sexual intercourse in a 2005 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Empowering? Give me a break

The con about youth sex is rooted in the myth behind the sexual revolution: that sex without restraints -- doing what you feel -- is both liberating and fundamental to human happiness. But in our sex-saturated culture, the opposite is true for many young people. It's far from liberating to be at the mercy of frenzied adolescent impulses.

Here's another myth: that young women are as eager to hop in the sack as young men. Surely, lots of women remember fighting off groping guys in high school and mashers at college frat parties. Sex with the average hormone-driven guy -- who sometimes can't wait to brag about "scoring" -- is supposed to be enticing or empowering to women? Give me a break.

Shalom Ross of Hopkins, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota, is one young woman who has chosen to remain abstinent until marriage.

But her experience at the U reveals one reason it's hard to keep such vows. The adults in authority there -- far from supporting her -- are undercutting her and other young people who have opted for sexual self-discipline and true love.

Ross cites a skit she saw at the U of M orientation in June. It portrayed a guy and a girl who get involved in sex shortly after their relationship begins. "The focus was supposed to be 'safe sex,'" Ross says. "But the underlying message to students was that sex is inevitable, no big deal -- everyone is doing it."

Ironically, Ross says, students at the U tend to be "much more broad-minded" about her decision than the people in authority. "Students respect the choice I've made, because they know the decision about sex is a 'big deal,'" she says.

Ross says: "They see the harm that sex can do, and quite a few regret the choices they've made."

Research confirms that premarital sex puts young women at significant risk, not only for pregnancy and STDs, but also for related problems like infertility. They also risk psychological harm such as depression, suicidal thoughts and what Ross calls "the feeling of worthlessness that comes after being around the block a few times."

Women have more to lose from sex -- especially casual sex -- than men. Why then are so many engaging in it?

Not surprisingly, young women often believe that they need to be "sexually active" if they want to be normal, to fit in. "Many women long for real intimacy, and they want to nab a guy," Ross says. "If you feel some deep connection through sex, you think the guy would feel that, too."

But sex without commitment is not erotic. In fact, it can be numbing, and it's caustic to human dignity. That's why, in surveys, it's monogamous married women -- not swingers -- who report the highest sexual satisfaction.

Wendy Shalit summed it up this way in her 1999 book, "A Return to Modesty": "When we humans act like animals, without any restraint and without any rules, we just don't have as much fun."

Young men also pay a price for casual sex. In college, I knew a Brad Pitt look-alike who confessed that whenever he woke up with a strange woman, he felt a little ashamed. "All I can think of," he told me, is, 'How can I get out of here without her noticing?'"

In the world of Paris Hilton, our young people -- especially young women -- are searching for socially supported ways to say no. They need to hear from us -- their parents, teachers and medical caregivers -- that self-restraint is not only possible, but desirable, and that real happiness comes from respecting your own dignity and that of others.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.

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