STD should not be a women's issue

by Claire Unis | 11/3/94 6:00am

There is a sexually transmitted disease called chlamydia that you might have right now. In 79 percent of women who have it, according to one study, there are no symptoms, but the ultimate effects include infertility, premature births, stillbirths and ectopic pregnancies. It is the most common STD, and it predominantly affects people our age -- treatable, but only if you know if you have it.

Yes, condoms will prevent its transmission. But at least one study of contraceptive use among college women indicates that only 12-14 percent of sexually active women use condoms, alone or in addition to oral contraceptives (used by 84-88 percent of female birth control users). Further, less than one-third reported discussing sexual histories with their partners before having sex with them.

What is going on?

In the age of enlightenment about -- if nothing else -- the dangers of unprotected sex, no one should have to preach about condom use.

Researchers have repeatedly cited communication to be the crucial problem. And this has been largely attributed to the traditional gender role of women in heterosexual relationships.

Generally speaking, women are not only more oriented toward concern for a partner's enjoyment of the sexual experience, and the attachment and relationship that may accompany it, but they are also left the primary responsibility for birth control. In trying to fulfill the first, they often feel powerless to thoroughly enact the second. Birth control pills, therefore, are the most popular form of contraceptive, but the question of disease prevention remains.

Women, in a culture that markets sex and equates it with desirability, are disempowered when it comes to discussion of their own sexual needs. Concern that men hate to wear condoms, men's resistance to doing so and ruining the experience are some reasons women have given for not protecting themselves. Being considered "loose" for asking is another. Culturally, we are told that it is okay to have sex, but not to ruin the moment -- or our perceived innocence -- by talking about it.

The statistics I have given are taken from a study in Health Care for Women International, Sept.-Oct. 1994.

One woman who was infected by her partner went so far as to say that STDs were part of being female; many others echoed the sentiment that women did not have the power to make men wear condoms. Rather than blame themselves for not speaking up, or their partners for not being honest with them and protecting them, many women felt victimized by "bad luck" when they contracted STDs. In addition, most women initially blamed themselves before realizing that their partners ought to share the responsibility.

Even women who do insist their partners wear condoms at first often feel safe once a relationship is established, so they stop using them -- and contract an STD. The establishment of trust, obviously, is not sufficient protection. Particularly in the case of a "silent" disease like chlamydia, however, this pattern is not unusual.

And the situation is even worse in communities where there is a perceived shortage of desirable men, as in the black community, where women's status in relationships is often even lower.

About 38 percent of college women in one sample reported having had one to four cases of STDs. We cannot afford to ignore that they are prevalent, sometimes silent, sometimes very dangerous.

Having condoms available is an important part of the battle; empowering women to talk about sex is equally crucial. And men need to take a more significant role in responsibility for the sexual encounters they have, as well. STDs are not -- should not be -- a women's issue.

Unfortunately, somehow, they seem to have become one.