Often when “sexuality” and “youth” come to mind, it’s children society focuses on first. Whether it’s child pornography, regulating the reintegration of sex offenders, sex education or teenage pregnancy, it is fair to say that many of the policy discussions and interventions that have to do with sexuality focus on folks younger than 18.
While this demographic deserves national attention and political strategy sessions, children eventually arrive at the first magic number that means something politically, legally and socially: 18. Unfortunately, the parameters of sexual advocacy imply that once one becomes an adult, regardless of whether earlier interventions were ineffective—or implemented at all—these former children are on their own.
While the age of 18 represents an end to sexual surveillance, for some this is also the beginning of a college career. And while these environments vary somewhat, there are dominant tropes about campus sexuality. Many arrive to co-educational habitats and find themselves unsupervised for the first time in their lives.
The growing pains have largely been overcome and managed. Acne is under control, our pubescent markers of maturity are in full bloom and some are in a position where they can overeat, drink routinely, sleep poorly, not exercise and remain relatively unscathed. In a culture that fetishizes youth, college students are the crème de la crème. And yet the sexual narratives of students are relegated to over-dramatized entertainment, with sitcoms and reality TV as the sole source of sexual representation.
One might then wonder, what is the sexual status of college students? What sexual behaviors do they engage in? What are the outcomes of these sexual behaviors? How does the University compare to the national demographic? What concerns should students have about their sex lives? And what campus resources exist that can help us better navigate our sexuality at such a crucial stage of decision-making and development? The Statement investigates the state of the sexual union, for college-aged youth here at the University and nationally.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IN OUR SEX LIVES
In the age of the perceived “campus hook-up culture,” it’s not surprising that 99 percent of students surveyed in a 2006 University Health Service study believed that the typical student is having sexual intercourse.
But in actuality, the same study found that 43 percent of University students have never had sexual intercourse.
Statistics from the 2006 National College Health Assessment and University Health Service challenge several ideas about students’ sexual habits. Tracking the general health of college students nationwide, the survey stands as an important start when assessing the sexual behaviors of college students and the outcomes of those behaviors.
The study also shows how University students measure up to college students in general — to compare, 32 percent of whom had never had sexual intercourse. The University also fell a little behind the curve in how often its students get some — 39 percent of students had sexual intercourse within 30 days of taking the survey, compared to 49.4 percent nationally.
Nationally and locally, though, the number of sex partners college students have yearly proves that the idea that sexual intercourse prevails is an exaggeration.
Locally and nationally, 69 percent of men and women have participated in oral sex at least once, with 43 percent of students having had it once or more in the past 30 days.
In both pools, anal sex proved to be much less common. Eighteen percent of men and women have had anal sex at the University, while 25 percent of students have tried it nationally. Three percent of University students and 5 percent of students nationwide had done it within 30 days before taking the survey.
When it comes to “body count” — the number of partners one has over a period of time — students both at the University and nationwide challenge the myth of rampant sexual intercourse.
Only 8 to 9 percent of students at the University and nationally had more than 4 partners in the past year. On average, students at the University had about 1.3 partners with an overwhelming amount, 41 percent, having just 1 partner. And while the national average is about 2 partners a year, 45 percent of students nationally had only 1 partner a year.
Remember, though, you can’t infer much about someone’s sexual health from just knowing her or his body count — protection methods ultimately define STI status in most cases. More than 90 percent of students nationwide and locally claim to use some method of contraception, with preferences skewed towards oral contraception, condoms and withdrawal.
But the percentage of students who actually used a condom during their last sexual session is shocking. Nationally and locally, only 50 to 51 percent used a condom the last time they had sexual intercourse and less than 5 percent bothered to use condoms during their last oral sex session.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER
The more pressing question, though, concerns the potential outcome of students’ ambivalence toward condoms: STDs, STIs and pregnancy.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 19 million new infections occur in the United States each year, with almost half of them occurring in young people ages 15 to 24.
“The three top STIs we see at UHS are HPV, herpes and chlamydia,” UHS Director Robert Winfield said. “And herpes has been known to be transmitted even when there are no visible sores.”
But in tests conducted at UHS in 2007, STD rates among University students were nominal — 2.2 percent of students tested were positive with chlamydia, .2 percent were positive with gonorrhea and .001 percent were positive with HIV.
The University again scores slightly lower than college students on average when it comes to sexually transmitted diseases and infections — save for chlamydia.
The University’s Chlamydia rate is more than double the .9 percent of students who had it nationwide in the 2007 National College Health Assessment.
When it comes to that other generally unwelcome outcome of college sexual intercourse, pregnancy, University students are also not immune. Between July 1, 2007 and June 30, 2008, 903 women went into UHS for urine pregnancy tests and 121 tested positive.
While it’s true that in the majority of categories, the University fares better than our national counterparts, our condom use percentages and our relatively high chlamydia rates are causes for concern.
Chlamydia is a curable infection that can result in discharge or a burning feeling in the genitalia and it is often transmitted through sexual intercourse and anal sex. In a majority of women and half of men, it is asymptomatic, meaning there are no symptoms.
According to the 2006 data from the Center for Disease Control, cases of chlamydia in women were three times higher than in men. And along with the gender gap there is a racial one, with African American women infected seven times more than their white female counterparts and American Indian/Alaska Natives being the second highest most infected.
There’s a cure, a couple weeks of antibiotics — but when symptomless cases go untreated they can result in infertility.
Another easily contractible, relatively common STD is Human papilloma virus, or HPV. While some strands of HPV have been known to go away on their own, about 30 of these skin-related viruses are sexually transmitted and can cause genital warts or cervical cancer. While there are treatments for warts and a vaccine that wards off a few of the viruses, there is no cure.
In 2007, UHS performed 4,495 pap smears and found 512 to be abnormal, which is usually, but not always, an indicator of HPV, said Susan Ernst, UHS director of gynecology.
“Because of the rise of oral sex, over 50 percent of new cases of herpes are caused by Herpes Simplex I [oral Herpes] and they appear on the genitals,” Ernst said.
SEX ED, TAKE TWO
When it comes to the spread of STIs at the University, culpability often lies in the kind of sexual education students receive before they move into their co-ed dorm hall. A 2007 University of Michigan survey of incoming freshman revealed that less than 25 percent of students had participated in sex education programs offering information on contraception. And less than 30 percent received information on STI prevention.
What then can we make of the remaining 70 to 75 percent?
“They may know that a sperm and egg make a baby,” said Chinyere Neale, a UHS sexual health educator. “But they have not been taught anything on sexual health, nothing on contraception. They have been in abstinence-only-until marriage programs and they have learned nothing.”
Winfield said the most common reason students get tested are the beginning of a new relationship and a sporadic sexual encounter with someone. But while there is nothing wrong with knowing your status on account of another individual, there are acknowledged guidelines to follow when exercising sexual self-care.
The timeline for women to start receiving pap smears is three years after they become sexually active or by age 21. This includes people of all sexual persuasions —even those who are not engaging in intercourse — as a woman can develop abnormal cells on her cervix without ever having any kind of sex. Women should also monitor changes in their vagina, watching for symptoms like lesions or genital warts.
Men have slightly different guidelines, considering they aren’t vulnerable to cervical cancer and that, for reasons that remain unclear, there currently isn’t a sufficient testing method for HPV in men. Men can receive HIV tests and urine tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“Men who are regularly sexually active, meaning they have at least a few oral sex partners and one sexual partner a year should be tested annually,” Winfield said.
He said men should also monitor changes in their genitalia and men who engage in anal intercourse with men should consult their physician about how often to get tested.
In general, everyone should be aware that there is no “test for everything.” One is assessed on a case-by-case basis, so be forthcoming with UHS and don’t be afraid to ask questions about your status.
Of course, the traditional recommendations still apply: wrap it up. At the same time, negotiating safe sex isn’t always easy and our protective measures don’t always occur in a vacuum. Men must navigate safe sex practices while also being mindful of the pace of their relationship with their partners. Sometimes a well-intentioned safety precaution may appear to be presumptuous to a partner who is not yet ready to have sex.
On the flip side, traditional ideas about women’s sexuality are still pervasive. A woman who carries condoms or other forms of barrier protection in her clutch on a Friday night runs the risk of being labeled promiscuous and the costs for sexual stigmatization can be enormous.
In spite of all this, Winfield maintains, “The evidence is compelling to make the choice to carry contraceptives on your person and to tell the truth when your partner asks you about your STI status.”
Students may come to campus armed with little sex education, but the University provides some resources in the realm of sexuality to help make up for the sexual deficit.
SAPAC is an organization affiliated with the Division of Student Affairs that provides “counseling, advocacy and educational training services” on the issue of sexual violence.
The University’s Education Theatre Troupe is a student-based theater company within the Office of New Student Programs that stages performances targeting campus issues for students transitioning to college life. Their summer orientation program includes skits on sexual health, sexual choices and sexual assault.
The Spectrum Center, until recently called the Office of LGBT Affairs, is a reservoir of information in the form of books on sexuality. Students and faculty at the center are also available to listen to the sexual or gender identity concerns of students.
But all the campus resources one would want aren’t worth anything if students aren’t aware of them. LSA senior Matt Hunter, who is the father of a 3 year old, said he had a difficult time locating campus resources to help him with the realities of STDs and the long-term implications of not using contraception.
“Education on application is not the University’s greatest showing,” Hunter said. “Not a lot of information is visible. Had I not actively pursued the sexual resources available on campus, I would not have known they existed.”
Meanwhile, LSA senior Jeanelle Bediako said it seems the University’s focus on sex education revolves mostly around women.
“I think the information is geared towards women instead of men,” Bediako said. “At many of the events, such as the sexuality presentations organized by residents in Stockwell hall that were open to the public my freshman and sophomore year, it was always all women, and maybe they can work harder on getting the word out to men.”
It seems even at the University the sentiment persists that college students are “in the know” about sex, leaving children as the only members of society for whom sexuality education and discussion should be actively cultivated. But it’s important to remember, if the right sex education doesn’t occur for students before they come to campus, they are just as clueless.
“The information I have received thus far is exactly what I have encountered in my high school context,” LSA freshman Libby Ashton said. “Coming to college, I thought it would have progressed.”
Perhaps a 1-credit course, “Sex Ed: What you really should have been taught,” is the prescription.