At Wolverine Wellness at University Health Service, University students can pick up four free safer sex items a day. Last semester, students obtained over 29,000 condoms from Wolverine Wellness. A recent petition asked UHS to make Trojan or Durex condoms available for free. After staff researched the available options’ consumer ratings and cost, UHS will order a product option from one of these brands. You can expect to see it as one of the complimentary safer sex product varieties by Fall 2014.
All condoms sold in the United States that claim to prevent sexually transmitted infections are subject to the same FDA reliability standards. Despite advertisers’ claims, particular brands offer no advantage in safety or efficacy. Some have fun textures, shapes or other features, but the protection is the same. The primary differences between condom brands are their wrapper designs and advertisements. In a culture where sexuality is infrequently discussed, sometimes the only sexual health narratives we hear are from corporations — and their voices are loud. So it’s understandable that the news that all condom brands work the same may raise some skepticism at first. But it’s important to know that if, after leaving this university, the only condoms you can access are the free, less-advertised ones from a clinic, you can trust them. If you learn how to properly use them and use them consistently, they will help protect your health.
Sexual health is measured by much more than using safer sex items. It includes other components of your physical wellness like sexual functioning, STI testing behaviors and contraception use if appropriate. It includes how you demonstrate your values through the choices you make about sex and dating. It includes whether the conditions and qualities you want in your relationships are realized. It includes the possibility of pleasure (to the extent that you want), and freedom from coercion or violence. It includes your self-worth and your respect for others. Using condoms and dental dams is effective at preventing many STIs — but it is just the tip, so to speak.
Similarly, sexual health programming is just one component of supporting a healthy campus. UHS provides medical services, health educators who can support your wellness goals, and student groups to connect you to others who are passionate about health. Professionals across other Student Life units provide services for an even wider range of needs. These resources are available because maintaining wellness while in school is complex and dependent on many factors.
Decisions about our physical health don’t happen in a vacuum; they’re connected to our mental health, to our schoolwork and jobs and to our social lives. On average, University students already perform risk-reducing sexual behaviors (like using condoms, using contraception and delaying partnered sex) at rates well above the national average for institutes of higher education — Go Blue! However, we have great opportunities to improve in several complicated health issues. When asked in the most recent National College Health Assessment what health issues make it hardest for them to succeed at college, University students didn’t report that sexual health issues were the main things holding them back; the top four challenges were stress, lack of sleep, colds/flu and anxiety. Excessive drinking exacerbates all of these issues while carrying its own risks of increased harm. This evidence doesn’t make safer sex less important, but it places it in context as one piece of a much bigger picture of health indicators at the University.
Adopting a shared, evidence-based wellness vision among students, staff and faculty is our best hope for making big strides in student health. Let’s envision a campus with norms that include not just safer sex, but also sleeping enough, managing our time to reduce stress, drinking in ways that reduce the chance of social or personal harm (or having fun without drinking), supporting our friends when they are struggling and fostering respect across our differences so all students feel valued here. These are big challenges that student organizers and professionals alike are working tirelessly to make changes to. By collectively owning this vision, we can build a campus culture where all students know they are good enough and, instead of feeling the need to sacrifice our health for accomplishments, wellness and self-care, inspire our success.
Laura McAndrew is an alumna and Carly Manes is a Public Policy junior.