Student Viewpoint: The Sexual Health of US Youth is Under Attack, Young Voices Need to Fight Back!


Viewpoint articles are written by members of the SPH community from a wide diversity of perspectives. The views expressed are solely those of the authors and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University or the School of Public Health. We aspire to a culture where all can express views in a context of civility and respect. Our guidance on the values that guide our commitment can be found at Revisiting the Principles of Free and Inclusive Academic Speech.

The sexual health of youth in the United States (US) is under attack. Teens struggle to access effective healthcare services, their confidentiality protections are not consistent, and the state of sex education across the country is abysmal. Factors like these contribute to the rising tide of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among youth—a clear sign that our laws, education, and culture surrounding sexual health needs to change.

STIs are an important aspect of sexual health. Because they are measurable negative health outcomes, they can be used to gauge the impact of public health policies and practices. In 2021, more than half (51%) of 2.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis were among young people (ages 15–24). As teens, we are frustrated and terrified by this statistic, but we know we must empower ourselves in order to resolve this public health crisis. We are putting out a call to action to our fellow youth: Rise to the challenge! Get involved in work that can help turn the tide and protect our sexual health!

We are members of a youth advisory board that collaborates with the iCARE (Inclusive Consent & Access to Resources for Everyone) study, a National Institutes of Health-funded research project about adolescent sexual health in the US conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health. This study examines how minor consent laws—laws that enable youth to access a range of medical treatments and prevention services (such as STI and HIV testing) without needing their parents’ or legal guardians’ permission—have changed over time; whether or not teens have knowledge about these laws; and if recent changes in legislation are impacting teens’ sexual health and decisions to utilize sexual health resources. iCARE also assesses changes in sex education laws over time and asks teens about their experience with school-based sex education. We are working to gather information that will help to solve the youth sexual health crisis.

During our almost four years of being youth advisory board members, we have each contributed unique insights to make a real impact on the study. We’ve been involved in everything from naming iCARE to determining recruitment strategies, developing survey questions, and interpreting study results. With our help, the iCARE study has been far more effective in reaching a diverse group of teens from across the country and collecting relevant, timely information that can be used to improve public policy and fuel the fight for quality, accessible sexual healthcare and education for youth.

Being involved in the process of iCARE has helped us realize just how important youth voices are in understanding and addressing the sexual health needs of teens. We have a great depth of cultural knowledge, life experience, and community understanding that makes our voices integral to the success of this research. Any policy changes stemming from this work will directly impact the health and well-being of our peers and generations to come. Because of this, youth like us must have a say in the process of research and policymaking about adolescent sexual health. We are the future faces of healthcare, education, politics, and research. Our creativity and passion are desperately needed not only to address the health needs of teens, but to also make measurable improvements in sexual health and well-being for all.

Mobilizing in youth action can lead to meaningful change in your community and transform your social groups. As a result of working on the youth advisory board, we have become more comfortable talking about sex and our own experiences with sexual health with others in ways we might not have otherwise. There’s no doubt that talking about sexual health in social settings can be daunting, but being involved with this work has helped us overcome that. This has allowed us to spread our knowledge to peers through open-minded and informed conversations, which we’ve noticed has led our friends to making safer choices surrounding their sexual practices and relationships. Communicating about sex in this way combats stigma, especially for those of us who grew up in communities where sex is a taboo subject. Sexual health is a topic that should be openly discussed, and it is essential for youth to be involved in these conversations. This is the only way we can work to improve our collective health.

On a personal level, being involved in research about adolescent sexual health has been deeply empowering. When reflecting on our experiences working on the iCARE study, we’ve realized just how much confidence we’ve gained through educating ourselves about STIs and other important sexual health topics. Gone are the days of feeling insecure and fearful talking or thinking about sexual health. We are now equipped with more knowledge and communication skills to make informed decisions for our health and well-being. We also know that we have what it takes to take a stand in the world of academia and shape research to be more inclusive. This experience inspires us to use our voices to advocate for our communities across various matters, realizing that our voices must be heard not despite our age, but because of it.

As a teen reading this article, you might be wondering: how can I get involved in work to improve youth sexual health? It doesn’t have to be research: you could try peer health education, political action, or volunteering with a local clinic. Even having an open and informed conversation with your friends about sex can be a form of community-based activism. Try looking up what organizations or student groups are working to improve sexual health in your area. If you can’t find anything, try looking for online opportunities like we did! Social media is a great place to start on this journey: it’s how we found out about the iCARE study.

Youth like us need to get involved in research or other work related to sexual health. We are disproportionately impacted by sexual health inequities, including the rising tide of STIs in the US, and we must be involved in creating innovative solutions to issues directly pertaining to us. Our voices are needed now more than ever to improve the health of our communities. While diving headfirst into the world of sexual health research by joining the youth advisory board was intimidating for some of us, it’s been a meaningful and rewarding experience that we recommend to anyone who wants to make a difference in their community.

This Viewpoint was written by a Youth Advisory Board (YAB) of 5 teenagers on an NIH funded study supervised by principal investigator Kimberly Nelson, associate professor of community health sciences.

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Student Viewpoint: The Sexual Health of US Youth is Under Attack, Young Voices Need to Fight Back!

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