STDs in L.A. County are skyrocketing. Officials think racism and stigma may be to blame

By SOUMYA KARLAMANGLA for the Los Angeles Times

The teenagers tucked their hands into their sweatshirt pockets as they shuffled to form a circle. Some gazed at the asphalt, trying to avoid the game they had been drafted to play.

“It’s like hot potato/musical chairs, but with a penis,” said the girl leading the group.

The kids gathered on a spring morning in South Los Angeles were about to get a hands-on lesson in sex education.

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Many health experts say that public health problems are best tackled outside the doctor’s office — that fixing the culture that perpetuates them is more effective than changing a single patient’s behavior. For sexual health, that means combating the stigma around sex.

The teenagers, the girl explained, would pass a plastic, life-size penis around the circle. Whoever was holding it when the music stopped would have to unroll a condom onto it, completing each of the eight steps they had been taught a few minutes earlier.

The music started, and the teens looked up.

Planned Parenthood peer advocates show students how to properly use a condom at Spring Into Love. Soumya Karlamangla / Los Angeles Times

The recent all-day event, called Spring Into Love, was intended to get high schoolers more comfortable talking about sex. The hope is that an open dialogue will make them more likely to seek out condoms and STD testing, and eventually reduce the spread of disease.