It’s 2012. Shouldn’t College Students Know to Wrap It Up Already? (A Graduate Student’s Perspective)

This article is published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) as part of our joint series on STD Awareness

They are more common than an all-nighter to finish a term paper or cramming for a final exam. Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. But the fact that STDS have a high prevalence among college aged students in the United States is alarming. One in four college students today has some kind of STD, a shocking 25 percent. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 19 million new cases of STDs occur every year, half of them occuring in people between 15 to 24 years old. I can’t say that I am a math whiz but let’s just say I don’t like the odds.

After doing some investigating I found that a primary reason for these high rates was a lack of education. As a New Jersey (yes, New Jersey) high school graduate I found this to be somewhat puzzling. I remember learning about different STDS and preventive measures. Even the nurse’s office had signs and posters describing this information. Don’t all students learn about prevention and safe sex in their health education courses in middle and/or in high school? 

A 2006 study by the CDC demonstrates that my optimistic perspective is a utopian flaw. The CDC study indicated that among U.S. high schools, 28 percent taught 11 key pregnancy, HIV, or other STD prevention topics in a required health education course.  In addition, while 87 percent of high schools taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy, HIV, and other STDs in a required health education course, only 39 percent taught how to correctly use a condom in a required health education course.  Clearly, high school students are in dire need of preventive and safe sex education and just teaching abstinence isn’t going to cut it. Early last month, the Guttmacher Institute released new research reaffirming other data and information that a comprehensive sexual education (teaching both abstinence and preventive measures) not only helps teens delay sex but also has a positive impact on other decisions when they do, such as partner selection.

Now, fast forward three months later and the high school senior is a college freshman. It is possible that this student attends college in another state or across the country; either way this student probably living in a campus dorm no longer under the direct influence of mom and dad. Also, this student is experiencing all of the liberating feelings that come along with college — making your own decisions, the freedom of living on your own, and meeting lots of new peers who will eventually become lifelong friends. And I would be remiss to mention the countless opportunities to party, let’s be real here we are talking about college. College creates an environment that can put many students in high-risk situations including having unprotected sex. Over 45 percent of college freshmen who have been binge drinking and under the influence of alcohol failed to use protection when engaging in sexual intercourse. Fifteen percent of these students contracted and/or spread STD’s amongst other college students. In addition, 7 percent of the students who contracted and/or spread STDs amongst other college students were unaware of their condition.

Check out this poster called “STDS on College Campuses.” It includes illustrations and depictions of the statistics and facts about sexual diseases as well as certain risk factors. What if these were sold on college campuses during Welcome Back week or hung in the hallways, preferably near the elevator? Just a thought.

It is impractical to believe that college students will not be sexually active. Not using the appropriate preventive measures (i.e. a condom) can lead to both unintended and unwanted consequences, high-risk situations or not. Eighty percent of people who have an STD experience no noticeable symptoms. Also, some STDs are treatable and curable while others are not. Preventing most STDs is a lot easier than treating most STDs. Prevention measures such as condom distribution, STD testing, and STD counseling are provided on most university and college campuses through the university’s student health service center. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone at your school’s student health service center, there are many options available online. Please visit the website of the National Coalition of STD Directors to find STD testing and referral information.

It is obvious that changes need to be made. But where to begin? Better promotion of sexual health-related courses can help make sure that college students are getting better information. In reality, however, this does not mean that these courses will reach the majority of the student body population.

Another area that could provide potential assistance is in the dorms. Typically, in every college dorm there are house proctors or an upperclassman monitor who is available to the students. The influence of these house proctors can be vital in disseminating sex health education (i.e. advice and information about services, etc).  This can be an effective option because most colleges require all freshmen to live in campus dorms. Educating house proctors on sexual health can assist in college students using preventive measures. For most, sexual health is a personal and sometimes difficult topic to openly talk about.

Therefore, I suggest a monthly distribution of a bag for all dorm rooms. This can be filled with information that includes risk factors, signs and symptoms, where to find nearby services, and condoms. This is also a great way for various student organizations and clubs on campus to get involved and have their input on critical sexual health issues.  This way for at least approximately 9 out of the 12 months of the year, college students are getting sexual health related information.

It’s your sex life. Get Yourself Talking. Get Yourself Tested. Be Responsible.

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  • mizzpesos

    HIV rates are skyrocketing among young men who have sex with men, as well as young people, white, Hispanic, Black, and especially women. The problem is, Millennials have no recollection of a time when HIV was just called AIDS, and it was a death sentence. I, however, remember that time. Ever seen the move “And The Band Played On?” Perfect depiction of how AIDS kills. And while HIV can be managed (NOT cured!), the antiretroviral cocktails come with a laundry list of side-effects. Worse, the first wave of HIV patients who’ve reached their senior years are presenting with bizarre new syndromes, like opportunistic infections and dementia that could in fact be caused by the antiretrovirals.

    Abstinence-only sex ed needs to be eliminated. It’s destroying the youth generation. I’m thankful that my sex-ed was focused around the idea that “AIDS kills, and condoms are non-negotiable.” This generation is being cheated. We also need to address the fact that HIV is not an equal-opportunity infection. Certain groups of people, because of their behaviors mostly, are at much higher risk. I’m a woman who has sex with men who have sex with men (typically not P-in-V, but oral sex involves semen, which is a vector for disease), so I’m a perfect example of what a high-risk group looks like. I’m totally ok with calling out that fact if it saves other people’s lives and don’t think the truth should be hidden because it’s not politically correct.

    And Ivy, I want to applaud you for the courage to tell it like it is. You actually have the type of job that is my dream job, and it’s so encouraging to see a young woman in that role. I am not working in public health, but one of my parents does, and it’s been a great inspiration to me. You are as well. I myself write for a magazine focusing on LGBT health issues, but that is not my “day job.” (Maybe public health should be my second career?) I know that as a queer woman sleeping with members of my own community, my infection risk is higher than it would be if I were straight. However, I’m concerned about the rates of infection rising so quickly among heterosexual women as well.

    It’s worse for the younger generation, but back when I was in the closet and sleeping with men “the regular way,” I was shocked by how many fought me HARD on using condoms. Many of these guys had a few years on me – they’re now middle-aged or close to it – so I KNOW they remember the days when AIDS killed. Yet they think they are immune. It seemed like once the HIV drugs got better in the late 90s, everyone “forgot” what a crisis it was, and reverted back to their 70s “free love” pre-AIDS sex-lives. This is not okay.