Students, staff promote sexual health through emotional, physical safer sex practices
Contrary to the horny-careless-college-kid cliché, not every student in higher ed. desires sex; some students find value in waiting for marriage, some identify on the asexual spectrum and some have yet to find the right opportunity. Sexually active or not, all students can benefit from sexual-health awareness.
As the World Health Organization explains, “Sexual health is fundamental to the overall health and well-being of individuals, couples and families, and to the social and economic development of communities and countries.”
WHO defines sexual health as, “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”
From the CDC to Planned Parenthood, safer sex authorities acknowledge that all sexual activity carries some risk, and the most reliable way to avoid sexually transmitted infections or diseases is to abstain from intercourse. For those who still want to engage in sex in a safe fulfilling manner, safer sex practices are recommended.
Beyond prophylactic use, communication and consent are more important aspects of safe sex than some realize.
A 2019 study from the American College Health Association found that over 50% of college students reported having some sex; less than 50% used condoms always or even a majority of the time.
Assistant professor of psychology and human sexuality Stevy Scarbrough advocates for condom use: “I think everyone who wants to engage in sexual activities should carry condoms. It is best to be prepared. To have them and not need them, rather than to need them and not have them,” Scarbrough said in an email interview.
“The Guidelines for Safer Sex” on the John Hopkins Medicine website encourages condom use for all sex, including oral. The guidelines express that condoms should be latex unless an allergy is present; polyurethane should be used with the presence of latex allergies, while condoms of natural materials should be avoided.
Pre-nursing student, Amber Anderson says, “The younger generation may think, ‘oh you just wear protection and you’ll be good’, but once you start taking some anatomy and physiology classes, you learn a lot more (about) what can happen.”
Planned Parenthood explains that condoms, when used correctly, are 98% effective in preventing pregnancy. Although condoms do help protect against many STIs, they do not eliminate all risks, according to the CDC STDs like HPV (genital warts) and herpes can be outside the areas of protection.
“Regularly get tested! If you’re regularly sexually active, I highly recommend getting tested every three months. STI tests don’t cost anything if you have insurance, and it’s a great way to have peace of mind,” Alex Olsen, assistant professor of sociology, says.
The CDC, Planned Parenthood, John’s Hopkins and others all advocate for regular testing, no matter relationship status or level of monogamy; this includes PAP tests, pelvic exams and STI screenings.
“Regular testing for all STIs should be a part of your preventative health care. Even if you are in a committed relationship, you should still take initiative to test and be certain you are healthy,” Georgann Willis, associate professor of psychology and former human sexuality instructor, said in an email.
Avoid unplanned pregnancies
According to an article on Community College Review, “61 percent of women who have children while in community college do not end up finishing their degrees. That rate is 65 percent higher than it is for female community college students without children.”
The statistic is so alarming that the American Association of Community Colleges began a campaign in 2010 named “Make it personal: College Completion in hopes of improving retention rates through pregnancy planning and prevention education.”
Although unplanned pregnancy can affect all parties involved, the educational burden often falls on the female student.
“With more and more states banning comprehensive care for women, it is vitally important that everyone with a uterus protects themselves from unwanted pregnancies with every option available to them,” Scarbrough says.
Methods of birth control are varied and should be discussed with doctors. However, the CDC explains that, outside of condom use, most other methods of birth control do not prevent STIs.
A 2017 study on self-efficacy found that alcohol and drug consumption can be a barrier to safer sex practices. Willis agrees.
“Under most circumstances, I maintain that sex and alcohol or sex and drugs should never occur together in the same setting,” Willis says. “Under the influence, it is too easy for lines to be crossed and consent to not be attainable. Sex should never be something that you regret or are ashamed of so you need to be clear to make clear decisions.”
Promoting emotionally safe sex
“Emotionally safe sex means that everyone involved wanted to be there, and are both on the same page about what is going on,” Erin Ritchie, UCC’s care advocate, said in an email. “Neither person’s boundaries are being crossed, and there is respect given to one another. Even with casual sex, making sure your partner is having a good time and is seen as a person is crucial.”
As a sociology instructor, Olsen agrees. “Each partner should have positive feelings about engaging in sexual activity with their partner(s) and be consenting before and throughout each sexual encounter, “ Olsen says. “We should feel safe enough to say no to sex when we aren’t enthusiastic or having positive feelings about it. If you feel negatively about it, such as not being in the mood, or you just have meh feelings about sex, you should be able to say no and your partner(s) accept that without being upset, annoyed or entitled, and vice versa.”
Willis reminds students, “You never under any circumstances owe somebody sex. It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing, what you have said or anything you have already done. At any point, you are free to say ‘no’ or say ‘stop.’”
“You do not ever, ever, ever owe anyone sex. If they get angry or disappointed, that is their problem, that is not your problem. If someone loses interest in you because you do not want to have sex, do not have sex to try to keep them interested. They are not interested in you as a partner; they just want to have sex and will go elsewhere to find someone willing,” Willis says.
Although condom use is acknowledged by many to be an important aspect of safer sex, regular use can still be a challenge for some to demand. The 2017 study on safe-sex practices in Southern United States colleges found that self-efficacy, which is the self-confidence to behave in alignment with desired behavior despite any push-back, may be a predictor of using safer sex practices.
“Safe sex also means feeling safe to have these conversations. There are definitely men that I’ve met who use lines like ‘come on don’t you trust me’, ‘you’re on birth control so it’s not a big deal if we don’t use a condom,’ or other phrases that pressure their partners into having unprotected sex. Truly safe sex happens when you feel like you have agency to assert your needs,” Olsen says.
Willis and Olsen emphasize the importance of open discussion regarding sexual interactions. “Whether sex is in the context of intimacy or whether it’s in the context of casual sex, all of these things still need to be openly discussed,” Willis says.
Olsen further expands on the value of communication. “So often when we talk about safe sex we focus on risk. I think that this can be a misguided way to talk to youth about sex. Sex is just as much about pleasure and connection as it is about STIs and pregnancy,” Olsen says. “I think if we reframe ‘safe sex’ as not just avoiding the bad, but also seeking out the good, we can radically change how we act and engage in our own relationships. I think inherent to this approach is that we also need to teach youth their worth, how to advocate for themselves and how to have these conversations before sexual contact actually occurs.”
For students interested in learning more about sex, gender, sexuality, sexual anatomy and other sex-related topics, Scarbrough teaches PSY 231 Human Sexuality in spring term.
For more information on proper condom use visit https://www.cdc.gov/condomeffectiveness/external-condom-use.html
For more guidelines for safer sex in college visit https://www.innerbody.com/college-students-guide-to-sexual-health
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