How to Encourage Young People to Undergo STI Testing
Guest blog post by Aimee King
One of the most difficult aspects of educating young people about sexual health is conveying the need for regular testing for STIs. As a recent university graduate who became involved in helping to educate people on this topic at school, this is something that's become clearer and clearer to me in recent years. Unfortunately, I've come to believe through my own experience that our society suffers from a deeply imperfect sexual education system whereby some young people are given so many warnings they end up scared of sex, and others are so inadequately prepared that they may not know how to protect themselves. But one thing that remains common for young people on both ends of the spectrum, and everywhere in between, is this: there's a scary and humiliating stigma attached to the idea of getting tested. Unlike when one gets a check-up for a common illness or something of the like, the idea of getting tested for an STI is unfortunately attached all to often to the idea that one is sexually reckless, or "dirty." Young people are occasionally hesitant to get tested simply because they don't want to project these unfair associations.
So how, as an educator or trusted adult, can you help to eliminate this stigma and persuade a young person that testing is not only necessary and healthy, but normal? Here are a few ideas of the approaches that can be most helpful.
First off, explain the concept of an STI (as opposed to an STD, which remains the most popular term, particularly among young people). Understanding the difference is crucial, because an infection can be asymptomatic, and as one Planned Parenthood peer educator stated, "the most common symptom is no symptom" with STIs. She goes on to reveal that 70-95 percent of women and 90 percent of men who have chlamydia actually don't show symptoms! Conveying this idea to young people emphasizes that STI testing shouldn't be a cause-and-effect practice. In other words, they shouldn't wait until something is visibly or obviously wrong. Instead, testing should be a regular practice for all sexually active people.
Building on this idea of framing STI testing as an ordinary practice, it's also helpful to convey that plenty of people take part in regular testing. According to one survey of sexually active individuals, just over 50 percent of responders reported that they had been tested for STIs before. Furthermore, 12 percent claimed to have regular testing once a year. That may not seem like a huge number, but it's pretty considerable when you think in terms of the whole population! The knowledge that so many people experience regular testing can sometimes be all a young person needs to add STI check-ups to his or her annual medical routine (alongside routine physicals and the like).
Finally, another effective way to approach this conversation is to carefully remove some of the fear factor from the idea of STI testing. The idea behind this is that thorough knowledge of STI details—what the symptoms are, how dangerous they can become, the difference treatment can make, etc.—can actually make them less frightening. This isn't to say STIs aren't scary, but rather that some are tamer than they're made out to be. For others, early recognition and treatment can prohibit long-lasting or particularly dire effects. Speaking about STIs with this viewpoint can help young people feel more relaxed about getting tested, because they'll no longer see STI diagnosis as a condemnation of their future sexual endeavors!
By keeping these ideas and strategies in mind, you may be able to have a more open and effective conversation the next time you have the opportunity to convince a young person to undergo regular testing!
Aimee King is a freelance writer and editor whose primary focus is on healthy relationships and sex. In addition to sharing her thoughts on the web, Aimee hopes to one day become a magazine editor.