Spring Break is just beginning for many students across the country, while others are wrapping up the end of their week-long hiatuses from school. You know what that means: lots of free time and, potentially, a lot of sexual activity happening! No, this doesn’t mean I’m endorsing everyone going out and getting it on. But I do think youth engaging in sexual activity is a reality we have to come to terms with in our communities. And I recommend we think seriously about how to protect ourselves. March 20 is also approaching, and it marks National Native American HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. What better time than this to reflect on the issue of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), otherwise known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? STIs ARE a reality in Indian Country. Particularly gonorrhea and chlamydia—Native rates of infection are anywhere from 3 to 5 times the national average. Now, I don’t like quoting statistics without mentioning why or how they occur, because they don’t happen in isolation from everything else going on in our communities. Higher rates of STIs in Native communities can happen for a variety of reasons, including lack of culturally specific (or even available) sexuality education, limited access to condoms or testing, and even things like environmental injustice and resource extraction, in which many transient populations come in and out of a community. So what can you do to protect yourself and prevent STIs? Well, you can “wrap it before you tap it,” as our youth like to say. But here are some other ideas to keep in mind:
- Stigma and shame can kill. Literally. HIV and other STIs remain a “taboo” topic in many communities. The fact that we may not feel comfortable openly discussing them without fear of being labeled the “one who has it” just by talking about it means that STIs continue to spread in silence. It also means we aren’t supporting our people living with STIs. Stigma can stop with YOU.
- Having access to sexuality education, condoms and safer sex materials that make sense to Native youth and in our languages is our HUMAN RIGHT. As Indigenous peoples, Article 24 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples guarantees our right to health—and this most definitely includes our sexual health. It’s also our human right to ask questions and make ourselves heard when things don’t make sense or are uncomfortable—whether that’s with a partner or with a doctor.
- Confidentiality can be an issue in many communities, big or small. So, it’s important you think strategically about privacy and what information you feel comfortable sharing—no matter if it’s at the health center or at home. Be creative with how things like condoms are accessed. Make them available in multiple places on the rez for free (like washrooms or tribal services buildings), or talk to someone you know and trust about getting them for you. We’ve got lots of ideas at the Native Youth Sexual Health Network on how to do this.
- Getting an STI doesn’t just happen from having unprotected sexual intercourse. There are other STIs, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV), that can be transmitted through things like unprotected oral sex. Know the facts.
- The only way you know for sure if you have an STI is to get tested. There are a lot of misconceptions about STIs and testing procedures. The only way to know is if you go! Find an STI center near you, and remember: It’s your right to ensure this happens on your terms.
Jessica Danforth is the founder and executive director of the Native Youth Sexual Health Network that works across the United States and Canada in the full spectrum of sexual and reproductive health by and for Indigenous youth.