This school year, the District will test high school students in a new, innovative way. The tests do not require paper or pencils. Instead, they require urine.
The District is expanding a pilot program, instituted the previous school year at eight high schools, that tests students for sexually transmitted diseases.
This is how it works: Groups of 15 to 20 students are hauled into restrooms and commanded into stalls, where they decide whether to produce urine samples, which they then will hand over, in confidentiality-friendly brown bags, to an adult who will examine their contents. Students who test positive have the further option of seeking treatment at public expense.
Though students can decline to supply strangers with their urine, their parents have no say in the matter. “This isn’t necessarily intended to comfort adults,” explained D.C. Council member David A. Catania. Urinating on command is unlikely to offer much rest and relaxation for children, either.
The question is not whether chlamydia is good or bad. The question is whether it is the job of politicians to inquire into the sex lives of minors. Saying it’s for their own good prompts another question: Says who? Says a gaggle of anonymous bureaucrats and professional politicians, whose job it is to make decisions for other people — and charging them for it.
The assumption behind the program is that children make mistakes because they don’t know any better. The solution, then, is for the government to step in and teach them how to misbehave properly.
Following the 2007-08 school year, Metro TeenAIDS, a D.C. advocacy group, assessed the state of STDs in the city. It found, as the D.C. Appleseed Center summarizes, that “while there were statistically significant increases in student knowledge on sexual health and HIV/AIDS, there were no significant changes in safer behaviors.”
If young people engage in unsafe sex, it’s not because they are uninformed about the dangers. It’s because they find the benefits to outweigh the risks. For many young people, celibacy, even if it means being STD-free, is less tantalizing than the alternative — having sex and possibly acquiring gonorrhea. It’s not a matter of not knowing what the consequences are. They know — but don’t care.
It’s entirely possible that many young people do not think they are at risk of STDs for the simple reason that they don’t share lovers or needles. But the government — not without due cause — insists on treating all teenagers like heroin-addicted sex fiends. To be sure, a lot of them, if they aren’t already, will grow up to be precisely that.
There is no denying the problems. The District has the worst AIDS rate in the country, with some 3 percent of D.C. residents infected with the virus. This seems to suggest that nothing, or not enough, is being done.
Quite the contrary. Just ask AIDS advocate Walter Smith, executive director of the D.C. Appleseed Center, who said last month, “There is no question that the D.C. government is doing a lot right now to address this epidemic.”
Maybe even too much. The District is one of only two cities in the country that boasts a large-scale government program for distributing free condoms (“and lubricant packages”) — and yet has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in America. Does that tell you something? Even when the city is selling safe sex for free, people aren’t buying it.
The city does more than hand out Durex condoms. Last year the city signed a $225,000 contract with a marketing firm to launch a “social marketing campaign,” which is supposed to convince youngsters that not having STDs is awesome. Another objective, says Shannon L. Hader, head of the D.C. HIV/AIDS Administration, is to “reduce the ridiculous stigma” associated (not unjustly) with these fairly gross maladies.
The city’s engagement efforts get even creepier. In April, the District held its 10th Annual STD Essay and Poster Contest. The contestants, high school students who may not have been old enough to drive, were asked to write an essay or create a poster that stressed “the importance of using condoms.”
The assumption that sex is inevitable among teenagers — no doubt pleasant news to some of them — is problematic not because it is untrue. It is bothersome because it leads to expensive, intrusive and often redundant advocacy.
Condom hype and prophylactic guidance are less a warning than an incitement to risky behavior. Social-marketing campaigns, whether in the form of STD competitions or amazing new technologies like text messaging, are an inevitable waste of time and other people’s money. What kind of self-respecting, indignant teenager will rebel against mom and dad and then swallow government propaganda about sex?
By saying that unsafe sex isn’t worth it, the government is implicitly saying safe sex is. Your teacher is daring you to have sex — safely.
Our government guardians claim they are merely facing reality. As baffling as it is for educators and politicians to claim reality as their special province, they have a point: Young people have sex. However, the fact of adolescent sex does not require government intervention.
You know we are in perilous times when Big Brother is watching you … go to the bathroom.
Windsor Mann is the letters editor of The Washington Times.