Commentary Sexual Health

It Shouldn’t Take a Chlamydia ‘Epidemic’ in Texas to Make Us Care About Teens’ Sexual Health

Martha Kempner

It was an outrageous—and ultimately false—story of 20 teens in a small high school in Texas having chlamydia that finally got media outlets to discuss whether kids need medically accurate information.

In recent weeks, numerous media reports have questioned whether abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are failing our high school students and leaving them vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancies. Interestingly, it was not new statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing the record high number of STIs among teens across the country, nor was it the mountains of research showing abstinence-only programs don’t work that made news. It wasn’t even the increased funding that Congress quietly passed for these failing programs last month that put this type of sex education in the spotlight. Instead, it was an outrageous—and ultimately false—story of 20 teens in a small high school in Texas having chlamydia that got media outlets, including the Washington Post, the U.S. News and World Report, People.com, and The View, to discuss whether kids need medically accurate information.

I appreciate the attention on this issue, and I hope the debate can go on even as we begin to learn the truth about what’s happening in Crane, Texas. But I am disappointed that yet again, the mainstream media and general public seem only to pay attention to teens’ sexual health needs when we can tie them to a situation so alarming or scandalous it can practically write its own headline.

This story began in early May, when the superintendent of the Crane Independent School District, Jim Rumage, sent a letter to parents alerting them that chlamydia was “on the rise” in the local high school. According to reports, the letter said that about 20 students out of the 300 in the school had tested positive for this bacterial STI. The article that ran on a local news website said that the CDC had declared this to be “epidemic proportions.” Rumage told reporters, “We do have an abstinence curriculum, and that’s evidently ain’t working. [sic] We need to do all we can, although it’s the parents’ responsibility to educate their kids on sexual education.”

From there the story took off, with articles and television pieces across the country and even internationally questioning how so many students could have an STI. (Rewire covered it in a podcast.) Most, like Rumage himself, ended up blaming the school’s poor sex education. Raw Story, for example, scoured the district’s website and pointed out that although the school does not offer a human sexuality course, it does run an optional three-day program that focuses on remaining abstinent until marriage. That story also noted that in 2012, an advisory panel recommended that the school adopt Worth the Wait, an abstinence curriculum produced by Scott and White Hospital in Texas that relies on fear and shame and suggests condoms provide very little protection from STIs.  

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This is not out of the ordinary for Texas, which has a long history of abstinence-only programs. When former President George W. Bush was governor, he started the Lone Star Leaders, one of the first state programs promoting abstinence until marriage. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Texas has spent a total of $156 million in state and local funds on abstinence-only programs since 2003. And in March, the Texas House of Representatives voted to cut $3 million of funds currently allocated for HIV and STI prevention and devote them instead to abstinence-only programs, despite the fact that their state has the third-highest rate of HIV diagnoses in the country.

Though much of this abstinence funding is used outside of schools, Texas schools do often take a similar approach to sexuality education. State law does not mandate any sexuality education, but does say that it must focus on abstinence if it is taught. Though schools can discuss contraception and STIs, the law says that class must “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior.” Moreover, the laws says that courses must “emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity, if used consistently and correctly, is the only method that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome.”

It appears that superintendent Rumage agrees with this aspect of the law. He told a local paper: “If kids are not having any sexual activity, they can’t get this disease … That’s not a bad program.”

I suppose he’s not entirely wrong. If his students weren’t having sex, they could not get chlamydia. But clearly they are not being abstinent, nor are their peers across Texas. According to the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 43 percent of high school girls and 49 percent of high school boys in Texas have engaged in sexual intercourse. Texas also has the third-highest rate of teen pregnancy across the country. And, in 2012, there were nearly 40,000 cases of chlamydia among teenagers 15 and older reported in Texas.

These statistics should be enough to get everyone paying attention to the poor sexual health of teens in Texas, and similar statistics are available for states across the country. But the media tends to gloss over these health indicators or report them in a brief news story without ever investigating what we are doing wrong. Apparently, it takes a story like Crane to make the general public take notice.

Only what we have learned since the story broke is that the “outbreak” of chlamydia that was reported in Crane was greatly exaggerated. Some reporters began questioning the numbers because the local health department listed only eight cases of chlamydia in the whole county. Rumage has since agreed that his number was incorrect and explained that he got his information from a local doctor and that he misheard or possibly misunderstood. When the doctor said that more than 20 students had been tested for chlamydia he took that to mean they all had the infection. In fact, only three cases have been confirmed among students, though not all test results have come back.

But three high school students with chlamydia is bad news. Chlamydia is an easily treatable bacterial infection, if caught early, but it often has no symptoms and young people won’t know they have it unless they know to get tested for it. If they don’t get tested and treated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease which, in turn, can lead to infertility. Moreover, the fact that three have chlamydia means that they are having unprotected sex and putting themselves in danger of contracting other STIs that can’t be cured, such as herpes and HIV. Given that we don’t know their gender, they are also at risk of getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy.

But is three students with chlamydia bad enough news to have made international headlines?

I doubt it. My guess is that if it had been clear from the start that this was not actually an epidemic, it wouldn’t have gotten past the local newspaper. Three chlamydia cases in one school is certainly alarming, but it’s not scandalous, and it doesn’t make for much of a headline.

I would argue, however, that it should. Every case of chlamydia or gonorrhea or herpes among teenagers should make headlines, or at least make us demand change, as should every teen who becomes unintentionally pregnant. These things can be prevented, and it is our responsibility as adults to give teens the information and tools necessary to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancy. We also have to help them think critically about their sexual decisions, because if more than 20 kids in one high school needs to be tested for chlamydia, it means that at least some of them are having unprotected sex with multiple partners. Teens are capable of making responsible choices, but they can’t do it without the help of adults and education.

We may never have heard of Crane, Texas, or questioned its sexuality education if the truth had been known going in. Now that we have, though, we should not let the conversation drop. According to some reports, the school board in Crane was set to reexamine its sex education program early this week. I hope that the recent scrutiny on the town—whether deserved or not—spurs the board to improve its program and I hope that media stays on the story to keep the pressure on. I also hope that moving forward, it will not take an epidemic to get us to focus on the sexual health needs of teens—because the next epidemic will likely be real and it will be the teens who suffer.

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