Strict sex education teaching laws could be leading to ‘growing threat’ of STDs

Advocates say abstinence-based teaching is not helpful

Strict sex education teaching laws could be leading to ‘growing threat’ of STDs

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - When Latrina Moore found out she was pregnant, it was one of the happiest moments of her life.

But it turned into one of the darkest when doctors told her she had HIV.

"I literally went blank. I didn't know what to say, what to think. Tears just started rolling down my face," said Moore.

The monogamous relationship she thought she had turned out to be based on a lie.

"The first thing I thought about was 'I'm going to die,'" she said.

Moore is not alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 100 people a day learn they have HIV.

But it's new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis doctors are most concerned about.

The CDC calls it a "growing threat."

Last year, a record 2.3 million Americans, mostly teens and young adults in their twenties, learned they were infected.

Most cases occurred in the South.

"We do have some of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections in the country," said David Sweat, chief of epidemiology at Shelby County Health Department.

Sweat blames federal funding cuts to public health programs.

David Harvey, the executive director for the National Coalition of STD Directors, said federal STD funding has seen a 40 percent decrease in purchasing power since 2003.

“An additional $70 million is needed immediately to sufficiently arm state and local STD programs to confront this crisis,” Harvey said.

Sweat said funding cuts have a big impact on local programs.

"What people may not understand is that when the budget at the federal level is reduced, that also reduces the amount of money that's available to use on STD control activities at state and local health departments," Sweat said.

Cherisse Scott said she believes sex education programs in public schools deserve much of the blame for rising STD rates.

She said the programs don’t teach her son and other students what they need really need to know.

“It’s irresponsible, to be honest,” Scott said.

State law governs the curriculum public schools teach students about sex.

While each state has different laws concerning sex education, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi require such classes be age-appropriate and stress abstinence.

While classes may feature discussions on contraceptives and STD prevention, there are limits.

For instance, DeSoto County Schools' "abstinence-only" policy prohibits teaching about abortion or showing how to use condoms.

Classes must also be separated by gender.

Shelby County Schools relies on third-party health groups to teach students about sex, as part of the family life education class, but they're limited in the information they provide.

In 2012, Tennessee enacted a law that allows parents to sue instructors who stray from abstinence-centered lessons. Judges can fine them $500.

Such laws keep groups who support what's known as comprehensive sex education out of schools.

Those groups, like Planned Parenthood, would go beyond abstinence and teach students about condoms and contraception. They also favor distributing them to students on campus, which is banned in Shelby County.

"If we would make these available to people, it would go a long way in preventing these high STI rates, as well as unplanned pregnancies," said Aimee Lewis, vice-president of external affairs for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. "The more information that young people have the smarter choices they can make."

Planned Parenthood and other groups who support comprehensive sex education try to reach out to youth in off-campus settings.

Ascend is one of the group that supports abstinence-only lessons, which it calls Sexual Risk Avoidance(SRA) education.

Formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association, the group said says teens who delay sex until marriage are more likely to thrive as adults, and are less likely to do drugs, suffer from depression or live in poverty.

“Condoms and contraception reduce the risk of pregnancy or STDs. They do not eliminate it. So sexual activity still puts teens at risk,” said Mary Anne Mosack, president and CEO of Ascend. “It’s not just ‘don’t have sex,’ but it’s really about ‘Let’s look at your whole life. Let’s look at your goals and your dreams.’”

But Scott doesn't buy it.

"Abstinence-based doesn't work. Abstinence-only doesn't work. Abstinence-centered doesn't work. All of the abstinences do not work,” said Scott.

That’s in part why she founded the non-profit SisterReach, which works to give comprehensive sex education to young people outside of school.

As for Moore, she is not letting her HIV diagnosis prevent her from living a normal life.

In addition to speaking engagements and outreach, she works with HIV clients in Memphis, making sure they take their medication and she tries to help them remove financial barriers.

As for sex education, she said she supports giving students more information beyond abstinence.

"You know, we say abstinence is the best prevention, but we know that a lot of people aren't abstinent," said Moore.

One thing both sides agreed on: the importance of parents talking to their kids about sex.

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