Chris Vanek paid attention in middle school sex education classes. When he first had sex at the age of 16, both he and his partner used condoms, even though both were virgins. Vanek, now 26, credits an open attitude about sex and frank talk about protection.
Vanek is a living example of one success story being reported at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington -- an improvement in the number of U.S. high school students who are having risky sex.
CDC data presented on Tuesday show just 47 percent of high school students have ever had sex, down from 54 percent in 1991 and holding steady since about 2001. Much progress has been seen among black students: in 1991, 82 percent of black high school students had started having sex but this plummeted to 60 percent by 2011. Just 15 percent of all students have had more four or more sex partners, down from 19 percent in 1991.
And 60 percent of those who are sexually active used a condom, which can protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases including the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
“I knew from a very young age that I was gay. I knew gay men were more at risk from HIV and AIDS than maybe the heterosexual population,” Vanek told NBC News in a telephone interview. “I guess I always just knew that I had to protect myself and the risks of being sexually active.”
Those risks later caught up with Vanek, a road manager and make-up artist for the singer Macy Gray. He learned he was infected with the AIDS virus in 2011 and is now a spokesman for a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention campaign against HIV stigma.
“I think I took sex education two or three times,” says Vanek, who grew up in Los Angeles. “It was definitely a topic in school. I even went to a Catholic high school. We would talk about it in religion class. We would talk about it in PE and health. While the schools in California are not the best schools, I definitely think they did a good job of educating me about sex and sexual health and puberty.”
Even Vanek’s conservative blue-collar parents took on the uncomfortable subject, he said. He remembers when he was 13 and learned an older teenaged cousin was pregnant. “They said, ‘Obviously, we would rather you not have sex but we know you are at an age where you are curious. We want you to protect yourself’. And they gave me a package of condoms. It was a really awkward conversation with them.”
The CDC’s Dr. Kevin Fenton says it’s the frank talk about sex that works. “The more comprehensive an education you provide, the better,” Fenton said in an interview. But he noted there is variation across the country, with some school districts choosing abstinence-only education while others offer a full curriculum that includes discussion of lesbian gay and transgender themes as well as how to respect one another in a relationship.
Budget cuts aren’t helping. “Data show that fewer schools provide the comprehensive HIV education needed to ensure that this trajectory continues,” Fenton said. Another barrier: socially conservative movements that reject sex education. Fenton is diplomatic when he is asked about school districts and parents who fear that sex education teaches poor morals.
“Part of what we are committed to doing is to provide evidence,” he said. “We try to make our recommendations on the best available evidence.” Studies show that a comprehensive sex education program can influence sexual behavior more than a limited approach.
It worries Fenton that the numbers of high school students having sex, having unprotected sex, and having multiple partners have leveled off. “The challenge that these data highlight is the need for us to sustain our efforts,” he said.
And CDC and other public health agencies are now looking for better ways to reach young adults after they leave high school. Young, gay men like Vanek are a particular target. Men in his demographic are by far the most likely Americans to become infected with HIV and CDC is acutely aware of the need to keep the momentum going after they leave those middle school sex education classes.
Vanek says he made just one mistake. “I met a guy and we hit it off and we did have sex without a condom,” he said. “We had talked about it. He said he had just been tested, and I had just been tested and we thought we were safe.”