Roy Gilbert

Fear of Contagion Won’t Depress Our Sex Lives Forever

Dr. Hilary Reno’s eyes widened as she scanned the waiting room at the St. Louis County Sexual Health Clinic in Missouri, where she’s the medical director. She was used to seeing a swath of humanity parked in those plastic chairs: middle-aged men secretly screening after a tryst; college students making a post-hookup pit stop; teenagers, fresh in love, testing together before taking the next step. But now, in the spring of 2019, every seat was filled, with more patients leaning up against the walls. “How,” she thought to herself, “can we possibly keep up?”

This week, in its annual S.T.D. Surveillance Report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed what physicians like Dr. Reno already suspected: that 2019, the most recent year for which data was collected, would set a record for reported cases of sexually transmitted infections. In 2018, an estimated one in five Americans had an S.T.I.; that’s about 68 million people. At least 26 million new infections were contracted during 2019 alone. Chlamydia hit an all-time peak — St. Louis, as it happens, has historically led U.S. cities in cases — while gonorrhea and syphilis, along with congenital infections and newborn deaths, were at their highest rates since the early 1990s. The trends for syphilis are particularly striking, given that two decades ago, it was close to elimination.

For a while, it appeared that the pandemic lockdown might unintentionally ease the surging S.T.I. epidemic. While a few holdouts chose to manage their anxiety through sex with strangers […]

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