This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report for 2016, and the news is not good. Rates of all reportable sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—the ones health-care providers must tell the CDC about—are up. And young women, as well as men who have sex with men, are shouldering much of the burden.
There were over 2 million new cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in 2016, which is the highest number ever reported. Specifically, there were 1.59 million cases of chlamydia, which represents a 4.7 percent increase from 2015; 468,514 cases of gonorrhea, representing an 18.5 percent increase in just one year; and 27,814 cases of syphilis, which is a 17.6 percent increase over the year before. To understand the full scope of the epidemic, though, we have to remember that many cases go undiagnosed and that there are other STIs—such as herpes and HPV—that are not reported to the CDC.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are all curable with antibiotics, but many cases go undiagnosed and untreated, and these can lead to long-term health issues including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility in both men and women, and neurological problems. Moreover, as Rewire has reported, gonorrhea is becoming harder to treat as the bacterium that causes the infection has steadily developed resistances to the antibiotics that have been used to treat it. There is currently only one class of drugs that is still working and few, if any, new ones are in the pipeline.
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Syphilis was once on the verge of eradication. In 2001, there were just 2.1 cases per 100,000 people. But that rate has steadily gone up, and today the rate is at 8.7 cases per 100,000 people. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are bearing much of that burden. In 2016, the majority of cases of syphilis (58.1 percent) were among men who have sex with men and half of those were among men living with HIV.
That said, the syphilis rate among women is on the rise as well, and increased by 35 percent in just one year. This is particularly disturbing because it has led to more than 600 cases of congenital syphilis (infection passed to infants from mothers during birth) in 2016, which led to more than 40 stillbirths. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release, “Every baby born with syphilis represents a tragic systems failure. All it takes is a simple STD test and antibiotic treatment to prevent this enormous headache and help assure a healthy start for the next generation of Americans.”
Gonorrhea rates have also increased among both women (up 13.8 percent) and men (22.2 percent). The CDC researchers believe the rate of gonorrhea infection is higher in men because of either increased transmission or an increase in diagnosed cases among MSM, but cannot know for sure, as most jurisdictions don’t report the gender of the partner. It’s also hard to tell whether an increase in diagnoses is because of a real increase in numbers or if it is simply that screening programs are reaching more people.
Chlamydia rates have not risen as much (up only 4.7 percent between 2015 and 2016), but it remains the most common STI reported to the CDC. Last year, there were almost 1.6 million cases. Unlike gonorrhea and syphilis, chlamydia is most common in women—there are 657.3 cases per 100,000 women in this country. And, the highest rates are reported in young women. Women with chlamydia often don’t know they have it, and untreated infection with chlamydia and gonorrhea are frequent causes of infertility.
Fred Wyand, director of communications at the American Sexual Health Association, told Rewire, “One worrisome trend is the erosion of our public health infrastructure, which includes STI prevention services, so those with barriers to care to begin with likely face even more difficulty getting the services they need. Testing and treatment are critical components in breaking the cycle of transmission to partners.”
The CDC echoed this in a press release, in which it called on state and local health departments to refocus efforts on identifying people’s sexual partners at risk of infection and providing treatment; on providers to make STI screening part of routine medical care, especially for MSM and pregnant women; and on all of us to speak openly about STIs, use condoms to reduce our risk, and get tested regularly if we are at risk.
Shopping Just as Good as Sex for Some People
Researchers at MyndPlay, a British marketing research firm that focuses on neuroscience and psychology, recently examined the brains of shoppers and found that some got as much pleasure out of a good deal as they do from a good romp.
The researcher divided people up into two groups. So-called inspired shoppers are those people who take an intuitive approach to finding unique items that express their own point of view. Shoppy-cats, on the other hand, are those who buy what they need to fit in.
Brain scans show that this first group of shoppers, the inspired ones, experience a prolonged euphoria from buying an item they like, and their scans looks similar to scans of people enjoying sexual pleasure. Of course, the shoppy-cats felt nowhere near orgasmic. With every ten minutes of browsing, their mental fatigue increased 30 percent. Perhaps these people should skip the shopping and go straight to bed.
Episode of a Children’s Television Show Pulled Because of Penis
When This Week in Sex first heard that an episode of Netflix’s children’s show, Maya the Bee, was pulled from the streaming service’s line-up because a mother saw a penis and testicles in one frame, we were convinced that the phallus was accidental and that the mother was overreacting. After all, kids don’t even notice so many things that can look like a penis and testicles to adults. And, we remember sitting through the Gooey Geyser episode of Dora the Explorer with barely controlled laughter.
Once we saw the picture, however, it became clear that this was not an erupting purple volcano that was clearly meant to make parents laugh; this was a deliberate depiction of a male member.
The Netflix series is based on a character that was introduced in a German children’s book published in 1912. It follows an adventurous bee and her friends as she tries to break out of the hive mind and explore the world. The book was adapted into a film in 1924, an animated 1975 television series in Japan, and is now a digitally animated series that has been on Netflix since 2012.
Apparently, at least one animator at Studio 100 Animation, which makes the series, could not resist making a visual pun in the episode titled, “King Willi.” The company admitted that there was undeniably a penis and testicles drawn on a tree that viewers could see for four seconds during a fly-by scene. In a statement, the producers wrote: “The origin of this image obviously results from a very bad joke from one of the 150 artists working on the production. This is indeed unacceptable to the Studio 100 Group as owner of the brand and all its partners and doesn’t reflect the quality of its work and its values.”
We agree that this is not appropriate for children’s television, but we have to wonder if those parents who took to the internet to say they were “disgusted” and proclaim, “there should be no reason that my children should have to see something like this” are nonetheless overreacting. It’s a pencil drawing of a body part that was on screen for four seconds. We’re sure most kids missed it and those who caught it were not traumatized. Frankly, we can’t believe any adult was watching closely enough to catch it. Most of our own watching of Dora the Explorer was spent doing chores or surfing the internet. Except when the Gooey Geyser episode was on, of course.