Understanding Sexual Health in College

Sexual health is an important part of college students' sexual experiences. Learn about safer sex practices and get tips on reproductive health.
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  • Students should inform themselves so they can have positive sexual experiences.
  • Open communication and safer sex are the best ways to promote sexual health.
  • Understanding reproductive health is key to preventing unplanned pregnancies.

For many, sex can be an uncomfortable topic. However, it's essential that college students learn about sexual health so they can have positive sexual experiences. What's more, gaining a deeper understanding of sexual health can lead to a safer, more fun, and more fulfilling sex life.

In this guide, we explain the meanings behind sexual and reproductive health, and the benefits of practicing safer sex.

What Is Sexual Health?

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as a "state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality." Basically, sexual health encompasses the different aspects of sexual relationships, from sexually transmitted diseases to sexual orientation and relationships.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexual health is not just about avoiding diseases but cultivating a positive connection to sex and healthy sexual relationships.

Below, we introduce the meanings of common words related to sexual health.

Sexual Pleasure

Sexual pleasure is the feeling of enjoyment that comes with sexual experiences. Sexual health is important in achieving sexual pleasure, as a healthy approach to sex allows you to communicate your desires.

In addition, sexual pleasure comes with its own health benefits, such as less stress and better sleep.

Sexual Relationships

Sexual relationships can take many forms beyond serious monogamous relationships. Some students prefer to engage in more casual sexual relationships, including hookups with multiple sex partners and one-night stands. Others may be involved in polyamorous relationships.

Regardless, students should follow safer sex practices.

Sexual Orientation

Sexual orientation refers to the genders of the people you're sexually attracted to. But this goes beyond the traditional binary conventions of straight and gay — the LGBTQ+ spectrum includes orientations like bisexual, pansexual, queer, polysexual, and many others.

Exploring and understanding your sexual orientation can help you have a more fulfilling college experience.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), STDs are infections that spread through vaginal, oral, and/or anal sex. Common STDs include chlamydia, herpes, and gonorrhea.

Reliably practicing safer sex — that is, using protection such as condoms and communicating with your sexual partner — can help curb the spread of infections. Many STDs are easy to treat once detected, which is why regular testing is so important.

Sexual Assault and Sexual Violence

Sexual assault and sexual violence are serious offenses. These crimes include forcing someone to have sex, or rape, making unwanted sexual contact with someone, and physically harming another person during sex without their consent.

If a person performs an action that their partner did not consent to during sex — even if the sex was otherwise consensual — that is also assault.

Sexual assault can occur in both straight relationships and LGBTQ+ relationships. Survivors of sexual assault may experience health consequences, like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Pregnancy, Abortion, and Reproductive Health

Reproductive health is an important topic on college campuses. Sexually active people can reduce their chances of pregnancy through reproductive health education and by ensuring they consistently (and correctly) use effective birth control, like contraceptives and condoms.

Even so, pregnancies do occur, which is why abortion rights and reproductive autonomy remain important issues on college and university campuses.

Why Is Sexual Health Important for College Students?

Sexual health covers many aspects of sexual relationships. Educating yourself about sexual health may include learning about STDs and crucial issues like consent and safer sex.

According to the CDC, people ages 15-24 account for half of the 20 million new STDs diagnosed each year in the U.S. Furthermore, college women ages 18-24 face a higher risk of sexual violence. As such, it's crucial for college students to have open conversations about sexual health.

If you're interested in learning more about sexual health at your college, visit your counseling or student health centers. These locations often offer educational resources about sexual health.

What Is Safe Sex?

Safe sex — also commonly referred to as "safer sex" — is having any form of sex (vaginal, oral, anal, and/or genital skin-to-skin contact) while protecting yourself and your partner from STDs and unplanned pregnancy.

Students can practice safer sex by wearing physical barriers, such as condoms, internal condoms, and dental dams. Other forms of contraception, like birth control pills and IUDs, add an extra layer of protection against pregnancy. However, they do not protect against STDs.

Students who regularly get tested for STDs also practice safer sex.

High-risk sexual behavior, in contrast, involves having vaginal, oral, or anal sex without a physical barrier or protection against pregnancy. It also means having sex without communicating your STD status with your sexual partner.

Engaging in behaviors such as heavy drinking and drug-taking before sex can increase your risk of contracting STDs and/or becoming pregnant.

How to Have Safer Sex: 6 Essential Tips for Students

The six tips below can help you practice safer sex in college. Keep in mind that abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid STDs and — in the case of male and female partners — pregnancy.

1. Communicate Openly With Your Partner

It might seem easier said than done, but communicating openly with your sexual partner about sex is a vital step in practicing safer sex. Ask your partner about their STD status and the last time they were tested.

Additionally, discuss your desires and expectations around sex, and clarify any boundaries you do not want to cross.

2. Choose Sexual Activities That Don't Involve Touching

Practicing safer sex can also mean choosing sexual activities that do not involve direct touching or the exchange of body fluids. For example, you can avoid direct contact through mutual masturbation, talking about sexual fantasies, or exchanging sexual messages.

Outercourse activities, which entail touching without spreading body fluids, may include massages, using sex toys, and dry humping.

3. Use Condoms or Other Barriers When Engaging in Sexual Activity

Condoms are a common way to put a barrier between you and your partner. Students can buy condoms at many stores and pharmacies. You may even be able to get them for free at your campus health center.

Other barrier options include internal condoms, which are worn inside the vagina or rectum, and dental dams, which can be used while performing oral sex.

4. Get Tested for STDs

Some STIs don't have symptoms, so the only way to know for sure whether you have an infection is to get tested. Before engaging in sexual activity for the first time with a new partner, both of you can practice safer sex by getting tested and sharing your results.

It's also good practice to undergo regular STD testing, particularly if you're not in a monogamous sexual relationship. Students can usually get tested at their campus health center. Students can also consider getting vaccinated against certain STIs like HPV and Hepititis A and B.

5. Avoid Alcohol and Drug Use

Heavy alcohol and drug use can impair your judgment and increases the risk of engaging in less safe sex. When under the influence, people are more likely to make reckless decisions, such as having sex without protection and engaging in sexual activity without communicating with their sexual partner first.

6. Know How to Recognize the Signs of Infection

Signs of STDs vary, but it's good to recognize any potential symptoms so you can get tested or consult a doctor.

Symptoms may include sores or bumps on the genital or rectal area, painful or burning urination, discharge from the penis, atypical or odorous vaginal discharge, unusual vaginal bleeding, or pain during sex.

Remember that knowing signs of infection applies to both your and your partner's bodies.

How to Prevent Unplanned Pregnancy in College

Practicing safer sex and taking full advantage of contraceptives can help college students avoid unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is also an option for those whose contraceptives may fail.

Below are options to help you prevent unplanned pregnancy. Once again, the only way to prevent unplanned pregnancy is to abstain from penetrative sex between a male and female partner.

Follow Safe Sex Practices

Following safer sex practices, such as putting a physical barrier between you and your partner during sex and communicating boundaries and expectations clearly, can help you reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy.

Avoiding drinking alcohol to excess and misusing drugs can also help you make more informed decisions about safer sex.

Use 2 Contraception Methods

No method of contraception is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy for heterosexual partners. When contraceptives are used incorrectly, the chances of pregnancy can rise significantly. That's why you should always stick with two contraception methods.

Many sexually active people in heterosexual partnerships use a physical barrier — such as a condom — combined with a hormonal contraception method like birth control pills, the patch, the implant, or an IUD. You can also use spermicide with condoms, diaphragms, and cervical caps for an added layer of protection against pregnancy.

Here are some common contraceptives and their efficacy rates with typical use and perfect use.

Typical use refers to how the method is generally used by people, taking into account common errors, like forgetting the occasional pill. Perfect use is when a contraceptive is used 100% correctly all the time.

Contraception Method Efficacy (Typical Use) Efficacy (Perfect Use)
Contraceptive implant >99%
Intrauterine system (IUS) >99%
Intrauterine device (IUD) >99%
Contraceptive injection shot 94-96% >99%
Contraceptive patch 91-93% >99%
Vaginal ring 91-93% >99%
Combined contraceptive pill 91-93% >99%
Progestin-only pill 91-93% 99%
Male condom 82-87% 98%
Diaphragm / cervical cap 71-88% 92-96%
Female condom 79% 95%

Source: CDC, NHS

Take Emergency Contraception as Needed

If you forget to use contraception or your contraception method fails (e.g., the condom breaks), you can turn to emergency contraception as a backup plan. In general, you should take emergency contraception as soon as possible after having unprotected sex.

Commonly known as the morning-after pill, this medication is available at pharmacies without a prescription. Emergency contraception options include Plan B One-Step, its generic versions, and ella. The ella pill is available by prescription only.

Practice Abstinence

Between male and female partners, the only 100% effective way to avoid unplanned pregnancy is to practice abstinence. This means refraining from having penetrative sex. If you choose to engage in other sexual activities, like oral sex, it's important that you use protection to prevent spreading and contracting STDs.

Sexual Health Resources for College Students

Check out the resources below to learn more about the importance of sexual health, particularly for college students.

  • Campus Health Center: Campus health centers usually provide several sexual health resources. You can also meet with healthcare professionals to discuss any concerns you have, such as STDs, relationships, consent, and unplanned pregnancy.
  • Center for Young Women's Health and Young Men's Health: If you feel unsure about any concepts related to sex, these websites offer easy-to-read definitions with straightforward factual information.
  • Planned Parenthood: Planned Parenthood is a healthcare provider that offers low-cost, free, and discrete sexual health services. College students can visit their local Planned Parenthood to get contraception, test for STDs, and seek abortions.
  • Bedsider: This website offers a helpful online directory for healthcare services, abortion providers, and birth control delivery. It also publishes articles on sexual health and wellness.
  • Birth Control Chart: Published by the Food and Drug Administration, this chart breaks down various forms of contraceptives. It outlines the risk of pregnancy for each form and details any risks or side effects.
  • STD Testing: Conversation Starters: This resource from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides prompts on how to start a conversation around STD testing and status with a sexual partner, as well as facts you can share to continue an open and honest discussion.
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections Guide: The U.S. Office of Population Affairs runs this online website, which offers factual information about STDs, how they're spread, and how you can treat them.
  • Coalition for Positive Sexuality: Available in both Spanish and English, this site promotes safe and positive sexual experiences. It also answers questions about sexual health that you might not be comfortable asking in person.
  • It's Your (Sex) Life: MTV hosts this interactive site, which publishes articles and frequently asked questions about topics like pregnancy, STDs, and sex within the LGBTQ+ community. You can also ask questions through a live chat.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Health in College

Do colleges give out free condoms to students?

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Many -- though not all -- colleges and universities provide free condoms to students. About 85% of colleges distributed male latex condoms for free as of 2011, according to one study published in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality.

You can likely find condoms at your campus student health or wellness center. Residence halls may also keep a supply of condoms -- ask your RA if they have any. Keeping a small supply of condoms in your own dorm or apartment is smart, too. That way, you're not scrambling to find contraception at the last minute.

How many college students have an STD?

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Studies have found that young people ages 16-24 --the typical age range for college students -- are at higher risk of contracting STDs than older adults. About 1 in 2 people will contract an STD by the age of 25, according to a 2021 study from the University of Iowa.

However, about 70% of people with STDs report being asymptomatic. As a result, many people may not know they're infected unless they undergo regular testing.

What happens if you get pregnant while in college?

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If you get pregnant while in college, you have several options, including abortion, placing the child for adoption, and raising the child yourself.

Students seeking an abortion should go to their campus health center to learn more about the process and where to access the medication or receive the procedure. You may be eligible to take a pregnancy-ending medication like mifepristone and misoprostol without the need to undergo surgical abortion.

Those who choose adoption may pursue a closed adoption, in which you will not have contact with the child after giving birth. You can also choose an open adoption, which allows you to participate in the child's life to a limited extent.

Finally, you may decide to go through with the pregnancy and raise the child yourself. Many resources geared toward parents attending college can help you finish your education should you choose this option.

Can you get an abortion at your campus health center?

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Though you may not be able to get an abortion at your campus health center, you can find several resources there to help you make an informed decision and determine where you can go for a safe abortion. Health centers can provide information and referrals to local providers who offer abortion services.

You can also look for these services at your local Planned Parenthood.

DISCLAIMER: If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek legal counsel. If you are experiencing a life-threatening situation, seek help or dial 911.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided on this website is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; instead, all information, content, and materials available on this site are for general informational purposes only. Readers of this website should consult with their physician to obtain advice with respect to any medical condition or treatment.