WARNING: Adult content will be discussed in this article. NSFW.
We’ve sat through cringeworthy sex ed classes, heard illogical stories from friends and watched at least one episode of "Sex Sent Me to the ER" (don’t lie, we all have). But what do we really know about safe sex? Most conservative public schools and religiously affiliated private schools preach abstinence after explaining in graphic detail the visual aspects of human genitalia, but do they cover STDs/HIV and their transmission? Do they cover it properly? What about contraception? Birth control and its many alternatives? Slut-shaming? Consent? The spectrum of human sexuality? Date rape and other forms of sexual assault? Probably not.
As we go to college, where there are thousands of prospective new friends (and sexual partners), it’s important to be informed on all of these things for not only your own sexual health, but your partner’s sexual health, too.
Let’s dive in!
The first and most important thing out of all of this is consent. Sober, enthusiastic and continuous consent is mandatory before the commencement of sexual acts. That means that if you’re drunk or your partner is drunk, don’t do it. If someone changes their mind halfway through, stop. If someone decides they don’t want to do anything after all or if they become uncomfortable in any way, stop. Consent is about communication and respect. Be aware of the age of consent in your state. State laws in America differ in their protection of minors so be sure that your partner is of age before you get active.
This is not meant to scare you or to stop you from having sex. This is so that you and your partner(s) feel safe and excited about what you’re doing and that you will both wake up in the morning satisfied and happy.
This term applies to everything from verbal sexual harassment to unwanted groping and rape. We’ve all heard about Columbia University graduate Emma Sulkowicz, whose story was publicized in an effort to bring awareness to college campus sexual assault. With statistics that state that up to one in five women will experience some form of sexual assault while attending a four-year college, that 73 percent of LGBTQ+ students report having been sexually assaulted and the utter lack of viable statistics regarding male victims (most likely because of the blasé response to stories of sexual assault experienced by men), one can see that sexual violence on college campuses is still a very real issue. But it really is quite easy to avoid. Don’t sexually assault anyone. Don’t grope anyone, don’t kiss anyone, don’t have sex with anyone unless you have clear, explicit consent to do so. Don’t drug anyone, don’t verbally sexually harass anyone. By creating a safer environment on college campuses, with emphasis on encouraging healthy sexual behavior, everyone’s college experience will be much better.
Sexually transmitted diseases happen and you need to be aware of the symptoms and the appropriate treatment so that your sexual health remains optimal.
Here are some of the most commonly contracted STDs and some information about HIV as well.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection of the genitals, anus or throat. Each year it is estimated that there are nearly 3 million new chlamydia infections in the U.S. It is most common among young people ages 15 to 24. Most people who are infected have no symptoms. For women who do experience symptoms, they may have vaginal discharge that is discolored or yellow-green, bleeding (not on their period) and/or burning and pain during urination. For men who do experience symptoms, they may have discharge or pain during urination and/or burning or itching around the opening of the penis. Infection in the rectum can cause rectal pain, discharge or bleeding in men and women. Chlamydia is contracted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be passed on from mother to child during childbirth. Chlamydia can be cured with oral antibiotics. A seven-day prescription should clear the infection right up. Your partner(s) should also be tested (and treated, if necessary).
Gonorrhea (a.k.a. the clap) is also a bacterial infection of the genitals, anus or throat. An estimated 820,000 people in the U.S. contract gonorrhea each year. It is most common among people aged 15 to 24. Most infected people have no symptoms. For those who do, it can cause a burning sensation while urinating and/or abnormal white, green and/or yellowish vaginal or penile discharge. Women may also have abnormal vaginal bleeding and/or pelvic pain. Men may also have painful or swollen testicles. Gonorrhea can be contracted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be passed on from mother to child during childbirth. Gonorrhea can be cured with the right antibiotics.
Genital Herpes is a viral infection of the genital areas. It can also infect the mouth and lips. Herpes is very common in the U.S. About one out of every six people between the ages of 14-49 has genital herpes. Most people have no or only minimal signs or symptoms. Herpes 1 typically causes cold sores and fever blisters in or around the mouth; Herpes 2 typically causes genital sores or blisters. But both viruses can cause sores in either area. A herpes outbreak can start as red bumps and then turn into painful blisters or sores. During the first outbreak, it can also lead to flu-like symptoms (like a fever, headaches and swollen glands). Herpes is contracted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be passed through skin-to-skin sexual contact, kissing and, rarely, from mother to child during childbirth. There is no cure for herpes — the virus stays in the body indefinitely and may cause recurrent outbreaks. However, the number of outbreaks tends to decrease over time. Medications can help treat symptoms, reduce the frequency of outbreaks and reduce the likelihood of spreading it to sex partners.
Syphilis is an infection caused by bacteria that can spread throughout the body. There are an estimated 55,000 new syphilis cases each year. Symptoms for syphilis depend on the stage of infection. In the early stage, there may be a single, painless sore (called a chancre) on the genitals, anus or mouth. Other symptoms may appear in a second stage up to six months after the first sore has disappeared, including a rash (especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet). This may be followed by a period without symptoms (which can last years) so getting tested is key. People can be infected with syphilis for years without symptoms, yet remain at risk for late complications if they are not treated. Syphilis is contracted through vaginal, oral or anal sex. It can also be passed through kissing if there is a lesion (sore) on the mouth and from mother to child during pregnancy. Antibiotic treatment can cure syphilis if it’s caught early, but medication can’t undo damage already done which is why testing and early detection is important. People who test positive for syphilis should avoid sexual contact with others until syphilis sores are completely healed. They should also let sex partners know so that they also can be tested and receive treatment if necessary.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that weakens the immune system and eventually causes AIDS if left untreated. About 50,000 new infections occur each year, with an estimated 1.1 million people already living with HIV. Many people who are infected with HIV do not have any symptoms and feel healthy. Symptoms don’t usually develop until a person’s immune system has been weakened. The symptoms people experience are usually related to infections and cancers they get due to a weakened immune system. HIV is contracted through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can also be contracted by sharing contaminated needles and from mother-to-child during pregnancy or breastfeeding. HIV cannot be transmitted through the exchange of saliva. There is no cure for HIV, but antiretroviral treatment can slow the progression of HIV and people on treatment can live long and healthy lives. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve a person’s chances of living a long, healthy life. By weakening the body’s ability to fight disease, HIV makes an infected person more vulnerable to infections that they wouldn’t otherwise get. HIV can also cause infections that anyone can get, such as other STDs and pneumonia, to be much worse. Left untreated, HIV infection develops into AIDS and is a fatal disease.
Need more info? MTV has an excellent sexual health website here.
Your Battle Armor: Contraception Part I
All that stuff about cold sores and rashes and blisters and inflammation is scary, but fear not! There is a simple way to reduce the risk of contracting STDs/HIV: condoms!
Condoms act as a physical barrier, reducing the chances of swapping sexual fluids. They come in different sizes (based on girth, not length, so do your research before you’re in the condom aisle at CVS with a red face because you don’t know which brand to get).
Also, if you’re embarrassed about buying condoms, that’s a pretty good indicator that you’re not ready to have sex yet. No shame! Your comfort is most important.
Here’s a quick tip for those of you with partners that have vaginas: if you need a dental dam but don’t have any on hand, get a condom and cut off the closed end, then cut it once lengthwise so that you have a rectangular, homemade dental dam!
Latex-free gloves are also a good option for prep, especially for my friends engaging in anal sex.
Remember to always use a condom, whether you’re engaging in oral, vaginal or anal sex. If you’re in a committed, monogamous relationship and you want to go without, discuss the possibility openly. Get STD and HIV testing to make sure that you’re clean before committing to that. If one partner is also at risk of pregnancy, there are multiple options for birth control.
Disclaimer: birth control pills are only 99 percent effective, as are condoms, so the best way to ensure an STD and pregnancy free relationship is to employ both birth control pills and condoms.
Ah, Pregnancy: Contraception Part II
To my people with vaginas: your health is very important. You should know some of your options!
The birth control pill contains two hormones: estrogen and progestin. These are called combination pills. (Some are progestin-only pills, but most individuals on the pill take combination pills.) The hormones in the pill work by 1) keeping eggs from leaving the ovaries. Pregnancy cannot happen if there is no egg to join with sperm and 2) making cervical mucus thicker. This keeps sperm from getting to the eggs.
The birth control patch releases the same hormones as in the birth control pill (estrogen and progestin) and works in the same way, except instead of taking pills, you apply the patch to your skin once a week for three weeks, then leave it off for a week.
IUDs are intrauterine devices — small, flexible and plastic T-shaped implants inserted into the uterus to prevent pregnancy. Both the copper and hormonal IUDs work mainly by affecting the way sperm move so they can't join with an egg. If sperm cannot join with an egg, pregnancy cannot happen. IUDs are more permanent birth control options, as they can prevent pregnancy for three to 12 years after insertion.
For more birth control choices and information, visit the Planned Parenthood site here.
Slut-Shaming: Don’t Do It
Slut-shaming is the experience of being labeled a promiscuous girl or woman (a "slut" or "ho") and then being punished socially for possessing this identity. Slut-shaming is sexist because only girls and women are called to task for their sexuality, whether real or imagined. Boys and men are congratulated for the exact same behavior. This is a double standard. This is unacceptable.
Why does it happen? Female sexuality is policed constantly, the idea of virginity equalling purity is a widespread societal belief, which reduces a woman’s worth down to her genitalia and is inherently misogynistic. This association of autonomous female sexuality is even worse for women of color and LGBTQ+ women, specifically polysexual women (including those that identify under the labels bisexual, pansexual or queer).
How to fix it? Don’t do it. Why is it a “walk of shame”? Why is her sexual activity allowed to be under scrutiny when his is applauded? Respect others, regardless of their gender and respect their desire to engage in sexual relations. Stop slut-shaming.
Human Sexuality (and Its Fluidity)
College is a time for experimentation, but it is very important to be aware of the fluidity that human sexuality has. Sexual attraction refers to the gender(s) of people that you find yourself having sexual feelings for. People can be heterosexual, which is considered the common sexuality, but people can also be bisexual, homosexual, pansexual, asexual, etc. And what about your own sexual fluidity? You could previously have only been interested in girls, but find yourself attracted to a boy. Totally normal! You could previously have been interested in boys, but find yourself attracted to an individual who identifies as non-binary. Happens all the time! Whether someone wants to have sex with everyone, solely their partner or no one at all, everyone deserves equal respect.
That was a lot of information all at once, but here’s a quick summary:
Communication is key.
Consent is required.
Don’t disrespect someone for their sexual activity, or lack thereof.
Sexuality is fluid and it is 100 percent OK to experiment.
Make intelligent decisions when it comes to birth control and contraception.
If you’re worried about having an STD, get tested as soon as possible.
And a final tip for all you lovely people: LUBE IS YOUR FRIEND!
Have a safe and sexy year everyone!
Lead Image Credit: Jovoto