Creating an STD-Free Generation: Jessica Ladd at TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 (Transcript)

Hello. So, sex is awesome, right? Like, it’s really awesome that we get to have sex with other people. But there are things about sex that are less awesome. Things like STDs. STDs are not awesome. And I grew up in a generation where a quarter of us were infected with STDs. And I grew up in a city, San Francisco, where, when I was growing up, I was convinced that I was going to die of AIDS, because that’s what people did around me. They died of AIDS.

And I live in a city now, Baltimore, where half of the black men who have sex with men, who are tested for HIV, come back as positive. STDs are not awesome. STDs can kill you. STDs can cause infertility and do cause infertility in thousands of women every year. STDs cause ectopic pregnancy, which is when a pregnancy occurs outside of the uterus, which can actually kill a woman. And STDs cause weird discharge, and bumps, and herpes, and warts. And all of these things totally suck. And even if you don’t have symptoms, even if you don’t have long-term health complications, STDs still are not awesome.

And the thing about STDs is that they cause billions of dollars in health care spending every year. And we still don’t seem to make them a very high priority. And STDs, luckily in some ways, are sexually transmitted. They’re spread through sexual networks. And not everybody who’s part of an infected sexual network will themselves become infected. Some people use condoms. Some people are just lucky. And of those people who do become infected, most won’t show any symptoms — It depends a little bit on the STDs — but most people won’t show symptoms, they won’t get diagnosed and they’ll continue to spread the infection. Luckily, some people do become diagnosed. Sometimes, it’s because they have symptoms. Sometimes, it’s routine screening.

But what if everybody who is diagnosed told all of their ever sexual partners? And what if they told all their ever sexual partners? And they told theirs? And they told theirs? Well, we’d end up doing with curable sexual transmitted diseases, as we could actually clear a network of disease. We could actually eradicate STDs from entire communities.

And with diseases like HIV, which are incurable, we might not be able to eradicate it right away, but we would solve the spread, because people who know that they’re infected, who are diagnosed, are far less likely to spread it to others. They’re a lot more likely to use condoms. They’re a lot more likely to take medication, which lowers their viral load, which makes it less likely that they’ll transmit the disease. And they change their sexual behavior to become less risky.

Now, this is something that we can do with these diseases because they’re sexually transmitted, and we couldn’t do that right with influenza, which is airborne, and we couldn’t do that with malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, because we don’t really remember every mosquito that ever bit us, but we do tend to remember people we have sex with, most of the time. But there’s a problem with the fact that these diseases are sexually transmitted, and that is that sex is awkward! Or, rather, we’re really awkward about sex. And we’re especially awkward about STDs, and that results in the majority of partners not being notified right now.

Luckily, there’s this thing called the internet. And the internet is awesome. The internet is quite possibly the most awesome health communication tool known to men, or, rather, it would be if we used it right. And the internet is really good at helping us do awkward things.

Now, a lot of times, those awkward things are watching porn, or ordering dildos online, or finding a threesome on Craigslist, right? But there are socially awkward things that we could do for social good that the internet could help us do as well. And that’s sort of where the idea for this website called “So They Can Know” was born. And this is something I’ve been working on for about three years, and we launched last month. And it’s designed to help people to use the internet to do the socially awkward thing of notifying their partners when they’ve been diagnosed with an STD. And it was created entirely by volunteers and launched at a cost of less than 5,000 dollars. And the website helps people inform their partners in two different ways.

So, one reason that people don’t tell their partners is because they don’t really know how to have that conversation, right? This is not something that your parents teach you how to talk about. This is not something that your friends teach you how to talk about. And this isn’t something that’s shown in TV shows. It’s not shown in movies. You have absolutely no way of knowing how to have this conversation, unless you just make yourself do it.

And so, the website features tips and scripts about how to do this, and videos that actually model what that conversation looks like. And for people who just, at the end of the day, are not going to do it, we also allow them to anonymously notify their partners. And so, what that does is it allows people who’ve been diagnosed with STDs to send their sex partners anonymous e-mails. They’re sent from “So They Can Know” and say what they may have been exposed to, whether or not they’ll show symptoms — and, if they do show symptoms, what those are likely to be –, what long-term health complications can arise, how the disease is transmitted, why they can benefit from going to see their doctor.

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