With the never-ending war on women’s rights and abstinence-only programs still being taught throughout the country, it’s not always easy to uncover the truth about where we’re at regarding safer sex and the state of sexually transmitted diseases.

Pop culture would have everyone believing that casual sex runs rampant, conservatives are still fighting for abstinence-only courses, and in places like New York and San Francisco, sex has almost achieved post-taboo status.

Yet, many people still haven’t realized that health care professionals and sex educators have switched to a new term: Sexually Transmitted Infections, aka STIs, in an attempt to destigmatize the topic, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While Generation Y—specifically those 25 and younger—account for nearly half of the 19 million new STI diagnoses every year (CDC), many people, even older generations, are afraid to get tested.

According to the University of New Hampshire Office of Health Education, “Less than half of adults ages 18 – 44 have been tested for an STD, other than HIV.”

The CDC recommends that people who are sexually active should be screened annually for STIs, but notes in a recent study that less than half follow their guidelines.

“There are so many people with this ‘it could never happen to me’ train of thought,” says Justyn Hintze, a previous sexual educator at Choice USA. “I truly believe that one of the causes behind this continual rise in STIs is the mentality that we’re invincible. No one thinks they’ll get a life threatening disease, but there’s no label that defines an STI positive individual, and it doesn’t matter if you have sex with one person or a million.”

Other than colds, which, according to another sex educator Lieva Whitbeck, are actually the most common infections to be transmitted sexually, the numbers show that herpes, HPV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are  most frequently diagnosed.

Specifically, doctors are required to report—anonymously—all cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Many of these infections show little to no symptoms until they’ve progressed into something worse. Gonorrhea can cause infertility, and syphilis—if left untreated—can cause severe brain, cardiovascular, and organ damage. And all of them can make a body more susceptible to contracting HIV.

While nationwide data takes time to process, there seems to be a general upswing in STIs throughout the country, and even abroad. Just last week, the UK released new information claiming that there’s been a six percent increase in STIs. Once again teenagers and young adults account for roughly half of the new cases.

“Too many people are putting themselves at risk of STIs and serious health problems by having unsafe sex,” Dr. Gwenda Hughes, head of STI surveillance at the UK’s Health Protection Agency, told The Independent. “We anticipated some increase in diagnoses due to improvements in testing in recent years, but not on the scale seen here.”

Megan McConnell of “16 and Pregnant”
with her baby Blake Ray Stone

However, while England reports an increase in casual sex, Bitch Media and the New York Times reported that the CDC released a study showing that teen pregnancy rates have dropped throughout the US. Some media commentators are speculating that shows like MTV’s “16 & Pregnant” are having a positive effect on youth. “Since sex is talked about more openly, and there’s more teen pregnancy dialogue in the media as well as a wider-access to information and resources thanks to the internet, I think that some teens are protecting themselves more,” says Hintze.

Studies suggest that boys might be the ones changing. It seems that today’s teenagers feel less inclined to “prove their masculinity” by having sex.

Instead, more and more boys seem to be waiting until they’re ready. This, coincidentally, was one of the things Whitbeck noted needed to change. “Boys need a lot more education about sex than they get,” she said. “Girls get a lot of education about how to say no, and in really progressive places, they learn how to say yes. But boys mostly have magazine culture.”

Depending on what side of the argument you’re on—abstinence only supporters are claiming that their method of “don’t ask, don’t tell, wait until marriage” is working— to the more liberal, progressive minds, it might seem as though abstinence only programs are slowly disappearing.

Hintze, however, denies this is true. “There are still a lot of people trying to fight for these programs. But the conservatives who are convinced that ‘abstinence-only’ sex ed will prevent teens from having sex are horribly mistaken. There are too many studies that show people who take abstinence until marriage pledges are often times the first to have premarital sex.” Hintze went on to add that “just because sex is spoken about more, and is more widely accepted, doesn’t mean that comprehensive sex ed is more accepted.” Hintze believes that this lack of thorough sexual education shoulders a great part of the blame for the rise in STIs.

So who is at the highest risk of contracting STIs?

Hintze notes, “women are more susceptible because of the makeup of the vagina as well as the power-dynamic that can sometimes come into play – particularly in heterosexual relationships. Also, lower income/less educated people are less likely to have the tools and knowledge to know how to protect themselves.”

The CDC, however, points a finger at “young black men who have sex with men (MSM),” they also say “STDs primarily affect young people.”

But another recent study claims “rates of sexually transmitted diseases have doubled for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s in the past decade,” making it clear that everyone—regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, and number of sexual partners—can contract an STI.