Colleges across the country often require students to take classes like Philosophy 101 — the reason being that “philosophy” is seen as essential knowledge young adults need to navigate the “real world” once they graduate.
But, there’s one course you’ll rarely see as a three-credit requirement on a student’s transcript: sex ed. And that oversight is causing problems for young adults that Confucius, Plato, and Aristotle can’t solve.
“I feel like high schools don't ever really teach people what they actually need to know, rather than just preach, ‘Don’t have sex at all,’” Lauren, a 20-year-old senior at Kent State University, told Refinery29. “Young teens in high school aren't mature enough to handle that kind of information, so they probably just disregard it and forget everything they learn. If sex programs were mandatory around freshman year of college, it could probably help with a lot of STI prevention and knowing the facts.”
A recent report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention revealed that certain curable sexually transmitted infections, namely syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, are on the rise among young adults ages 15 to 24. Young women in particular are contracting syphilis at alarming rates, the rate of infection increasing by 36% from 2015 to 2016. If left untreated, syphilis can cause blindness, infertility, and strokes. Additionally, a recent study shows that 1 in 9 American men ages 18 to 69 has the human papilloma virus, better known as HPV. In some cases, HPV can cause genital warts or even cancer.
And the CDC anticipates the problem only getting worse.
“Increases in STIs are a clear warning of a growing threat,” Jonathan Mermin, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said in a September press release. “STIs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond.”
In October, Kentucky’s Morehead State University announced the on-campus student clinic would be closing, citing budget restructuring as the reason for shuttering the institution, which offered walk-in STI testing for students.
College campuses face a unique set of challenges when it comes to the surge in STIs.
STIs are a persistent enemy, growing in number, and outpacing our ability to respond.
Jonathan Mermin, MD
In the U.S., only 22 states and the District of Columbia require sex and HIV-prevention education in grade school, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Of those states, 20 require information on condoms and contraception be taught. Twenty-six states require abstinence be stressed when teaching students about sex.
As a result, thousands of students enter college without adequate education on STI prevention, pregnancy, and contraception. And because it’s rare for a college to offer any sort of formal sex ed, students often rely on advice from friends or the internet to help inform their sexual decision-making.
The imbroglio between students experiencing freedom for the first time and not being armed with proper information amounts to what Dorian Solot — a sex educator and co-creator of Sex Discussed Here — compares to “exploring the wilderness.”
“If you don’t have a map and your only knowledge of the terrain comes from nature videos, you can wind up confused, frustrated, and at risk of some pretty serious problems,” Solot said in an interview.
Solot’s organization travels to college campuses across the country to give what she calls “funny, honest, real-world sex ed presentations.” In addition to teaching STI prevention, Sex Discussed Here teaches everything from LGBTQ+ issues and the female orgasm to consent and sexual assault prevention.
College students are basically wandering lost in the sexual woods without a compass.
Sex Discussed Here has been to about 300 schools in 43 states, many of which bring the program back year after year.
According to Solot, college is a critical time for students to receive sex education. “College is when many students are having their first sexual experiences, their first significant relationships — and also doing a lot of hooking up.”
“A lot of the most basic information about what can and can’t get you pregnant, or how STIs can and can’t be transmitted — many college students don’t have a solid grasp of those scientific facts,” she continued. “When you add into the mix how to communicate about consent in ways that aren’t awkward, or why the orgasm gap is so huge, college students are basically wandering lost in the sexual woods without a compass.”
Solot believes that colleges need to be doing more to address the rise in STIs — and it shouldn’t just be handing out condoms.
“Colleges should be planting the seeds about healthy sexuality during engaging, mandatory orientation programs for incoming students — letting students know, ‘We expect you to make safe, respectful choices,’ giving them basic information, and letting them know about resources available on campus,” she said.
Some schools, like the University of Oregon, are doing just that — and have enacted measures to protect and educate their students.
LeAnn Gutierrez, the executive director of the university’s health center, said in an interview that STI testing is among the top five reasons students visit the health center. That demand, she said, drove the school’s decision to create an STI screening center, which has helped alleviate some of the appointment access issues they were facing.
“This campus has made a commitment to the philosophy that the more resources we make available for students for safer sex practices, [the more we can] influence the STI rates we see here on campus,” Gutierrez said.
Since the program launched last year, the clinic has seen more than 800 visits. Gutierrez said it's having an impact beyond providing testing and free contraception, with 95% of those who participated in a survey this semester saying their visit helped them learn about safer sex practices. Eighty-eight percent said they would now practice safer sex.
“We believe that education is really important; getting that facetime with a nurse to help explain to them how STIs are transmitted, to talk about safer sex behaviors,” Gutierrez said.
The university also has Sex Positive Peer Wellness Advocates, who offer guidance to fellow students on safe sex, education on anatomy and physiology, and a program called Condomania which provides outreach to sororities and fraternities (the university goes through 1,000 male condoms a week).
Another independent student group called Sex Cafe promotes “sex-positive experiences through open dialogue,” and is open to all female-identified and non-binary students.
Due to its initiatives, the university ranked No. 4 on Trojan’s Sexual Health Report Card in 2016. “We’re very proud of that,” Gutierrez said.
While the University of Oregon could certainly be a model for the country on what comprehensive and progressive sex education and STI prevention looks like, it is certainly not in line with the approach of the Trump administration, which in June 2017 quietly cut more than $200 million from an Obama-era Health and Human Services program that funded teen-pregnancy prevention initiatives and sex education.
The latter approach — one akin to adding gasoline to already raging fire — does not bode well for the health of young Americans.
“We have reached a decisive moment for the nation,” Dr. Mermin of the CDC warned. “STD rates are rising, and many of the country’s systems for preventing STDs have eroded. We must mobilize, rebuild, and expand services — or the human and economic burden will continue to grow.”
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