September 24, 2007
In recent years, sex ed has become a hot-button topic across the country. Advocates of abstinence education ridicule the increase in sex-awareness programming in schools, while sexual health activists decry students’ lack of access to materials that may protect them from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy.
On most college campuses, the latter group appears to be winning. More than ever, student health groups are working to spread awareness about STIs and HIV, and more health centers are providing information and resources. Yet STIs persist on campus: 20 percent to 25 percent of college students either have STIs or have transmitted them, and a large number of students remain underinformed about their risks.
Most college freshmen have a basic knowledge of sexually transmitted infections, according to George Gianakakos, who volunteers with the group Sexual Health and Assault Peer Education (SHAPE) on Northwestern University’s campus. “I think if people were questioned regarding STI and HIV prevention, they would give pretty standard answers — wear a condom, don’t have sex, etc.,” Gianakakos says. However, freshmen tend to be in the dark about such preventative measures as female condoms and dental dams. Students’ main concern is pregnancy, he says; they often assume that despite the prevalence of STIs, they are not personally at risk.
Students at other campuses expressed similar sentiments. Since sexual education is usually taught in middle school or early high school, when most kids aren’t having sex, they associate STIs with “other people,” and that mentality sticks, creating a pervasive stigma. It’s a kind of sexual-health Catch-22, according to Katie Guilfoyle, Northwestern’s health education department coordinator. “The students that are affected by STIs are silent, and so the myth that only certain people are affected gets perpetuated,” she says.
Guilfoyle adds that bacterial STIs are seen as more acceptable than viral STIs; students with chlamydia know they can clear up the infections with antibiotics, but herpes hangs on for life. This notion makes it even more likely that students won’t inform their partners of a viral infection.
The silence surrounding STIs goes beyond stigmatization, however, says Mark Dlugash, a sexual health counselor (SHC) at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Despite the culture of openness on many college campuses, they don’t escape the larger society’s general dynamic of secrecy surrounding the not-so-pleasant aspects of sex.