The College Student’s Guide to Sexual Health
Before you kick off a new year on campus, make sure to get schooled in every aspect of your sexual health — this comprehensive guide will fill in any knowledge gaps.
If you didn’t take Sex Ed when you were younger, or if the sex education you did get was abstinence-focused or just insufficient, you need it now – yes, even if you’re already doing it and having a pretty good time!
Fewer than half of high schools in the United States teach sex ed topics that the CDC has deemed key. Those topics are pretty basic, like “establish and maintain healthy relationships” and “treat others with courtesy and respect without regard to their sexuality” and “engage in behaviors that prevent or reduce STIs, including HIV.”
Pretty basic topics — but only 43% of high schoolers are taught about them.
Wondering how we got here? Here’s a glimpse into the state of sex ed so far in 2022:
- Approximately $100.8 million in 2022 federal funds has gone to abstinence-only sex ed programs (which don’t actually lead to students delaying sexual activity).
- Only 29 states and Washington D.C. mandate sex education.
- If sex ed is provided, 13 states don’t require it to be medically accurate.
- Six states explicitly require that sex ed stigmatizes LGBTQ+ people.
- Only 19 states require sex ed programs to teach about condoms or contraception.
Statistically speaking, you probably didn’t get the sex ed you deserve — and even if you did, you may still have more questions! That’s why I’ve put together this crash course to everything you may have missed, packed with links so you can fill in any knowledge gaps with more learning.
So, if you’re headed to campus, bookmark this post. You’ll thank yourself later!
(And hey, if you’re not a college student, you can still benefit from this info, so you can bookmark it, too!)
Exploring Your Pleasure
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity, […but also] the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.”
Pleasure is right there in the definition! People have sex for a lot of reasons, but pleasure is one of the big ones. So, we’re starting with pleasure.
- Sex is nothing to be ashamed of. But given the prevalence of abstinence-only sex ed, you might feel like it is. Here’s how to let go of the shame and focus on what you really want and believe instead.
- Sluttiness is BS — and you should really drop “slut” from your vocabulary.
- And while you’re at it, charge up your vibrator (and let these three myths about them die instead).
- One key way to learn what you like sexually? The DIY method! Masturbation is totally normal and healthy (yes, even if you’re dating someone).
- Are orgasms feeling mysterious and complicated? Here are some basic things you should know about them and here’s how to tell if you’ve had one.
Barrier Methods & What to Do If a Condom Breaks
Barrier methods are non-porous tools that are used to prevent fluid transmission (or certain areas of skin touching) during sex. There are many types of barrier methods, like external condoms, internal condoms, dental dams, gloves, and finger cots (you can learn more about them all here), but the most commonly used barrier is an external condom.
In the United States, external condoms are made out of latex, polyurethane, polyisoprene, and even lamb intestine (but as a heads-up, lambskin condoms don’t protect against STIs, just pregnancy).
When used properly, condoms are highly effective at preventing STIs and pregnancy — around 98% effective, in fact! They’re readily available at pharmacies, convenience stores, and grocery stores, and you can also often get them for free on campus or at your local health department.
But sometimes, condoms break (this is typically due to them not being the right size, not being stored properly, being expired, or needing more lubricant). Here’s how to handle that if it happens to you:
- If you were using condoms to prevent pregnancy, you may want to consider emergency contraception. Here’s Nurx’s simple guide to figuring out if emergency contraception is right for you.
- Here are six things to know about the morning-after pill.
- ONE Condoms has a comprehensive guide to help you if a condom fails
- Many people use condoms alongside another form of pregnancy prevention. Here’s a guide to help you figure out the best birth control options for you.
- If you’re concerned about potential HIV transmission, you can take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis).
- You may also want to get tested for STIs, which you can do from home! If you’ve never done an STI test before, here’s a video explaining what a home test is like.
Knowing the Symptoms of an STI (and What to Do Next)
Sexually Transmitted Infections (otherwise known as STIs, and formerly known as STDs) are types of infections that commonly (but not exclusively) spread through sexual activity and have sexual side effects.
They’re broken down into two broad categories: bacterial (like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) and viral (like Herpes, HPV, HIV, and Hepatitis).
All STIs are treatable, and bacterial STIs are curable. Viral STIs are usually chronic, meaning that the virus continues to live in your body (although you may have a low viral load and your symptoms may come and go over time). STIs are also incredibly common — most people will get some type of STI at some point in their life — and are nothing to be ashamed of! One way to prevent or reduce your chances of catching STIs is by using barrier methods (scroll back up if you skipped that section).
STIs are commonly asymptomatic, which means someone might not have any symptoms at all. Being asymptomatic doesn’t mean that you don’t have an infection, so getting tested regularly is still important.
Here are some common symptoms of STIs that you might experience:
- Genital or pelvic pain, either during sex, while peeing, or just in general
- Sores or bumps on or near the genitals
- Abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis
- Vaginal itchiness
- Bleeding during or after sex
You could also experience a fever or swollen lymph nodes. These are just some of the most common symptoms, so in general, we recommend getting tested regularly. Luckily, STI testing is faster and more accessible than ever before, and so is treatment!
- STI symptoms can be similar to UTI symptoms, so here’s how to tell them apart.
- Have a chronic or viral STI like herpes? You can still have great sex!
- You can order a home STI test here
- Have you tested positive for herpes? You can get management medications easily here.
- TellYourPartner.org can help you anonymously let past partners know that they should get tested.
Sexual Violence, Consent, and Being a Supportive Friend
Sexual violence on college campuses is a pervasive issue for students of all genders. According to a 2020 Association of American Universities report, 13% of all undergrad and graduate students have experienced sexual violence.
Contrary to popular belief, sexual violence isn’t just a cisgender woman’s issue. People of all genders can be victims of sexual assault. That same 2020 report found that 23.1% of trans and gender nonconforming students experience sexual assault.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, know this: It is never your fault.
- There is a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to sexual violence. So, here are three of the questions I get most frequently about it.
- Along those same lines, here are 10 myths about sexual violence that you should start unlearning like…now.
- Lux Alptraum spoke with us about their work as a volunteer victim advocate.
- Curious about mental or physical health after sexual assault? Here’s a simple guide.
- If you’re a survivor of sexual assault who wants to reclaim your sex life, this guide has everything you need to know to get started.
- If you think a friend has experienced sexual violence or partner abuse, here are some things you can do to help.
- Change your mind during sex? Here’s what to do.
- Dr. Logan Levkoff is here to break down some consent basics.
HIV Prevention & Treatment
Yes, HIV is an STI, so some of the information is technically covered in the STI section. But when it comes to HIV, there’s an additional layer of stigma and misinformation — plus, additional resources for prevention and treatment.
HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that develops into AIDS when left untreated. AIDS stands for Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome, and it describes a collection of symptoms, infections, and infection-related cancers that result from untreated HIV.
To be clear: Being HIV-positive does not mean that you will develop AIDS.
With timely treatment and the medications that are available in much of the world today, HIV can be incredibly manageable. In fact, when HIV-positive folks are able to consistently access their HIV medication and healthcare, they can reach undetectable status. That means that although they are HIV-positive, the virus is not detectable in their blood — this means that the virus is incredibly well-managed. People who have undetectable levels of HIV also cannot transmit HIV to others.
While in the late 20th century it took weeks to receive your test results, today, you can get free rapid HIV test results in just five minutes. Five minutes!
Although many people think that only men get HIV, that isn’t true — people of any gender can get HIV, so it’s important to get tested regularly, know your status, and actively work to destigmatize the virus.
- PrEP, or Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, is a daily pill that can protect you from HIV. Here are 6 tips for starting PrEP (which you can get prescribed from Nurx, btw!)
- There are many new developments when it comes to PrEP (like new injectable formulas that are being tested). Here’s our 2021 round-up of new information.
- In this blog post, one cisgender woman talks about her experience living with HIV.
- If you were exposed to HIV (like because a condom broke or because you were sexually assaulted), you can take PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) as an emergency regimen. You have to start PEP within 72 hours of exposure — here’s what else you should know.
- Here are 9 myths about HIV you should unlearn.
UTIs, Yeast Infections, and Bacterial Vaginosis
UTIs, yeast infections, and bacterial vaginosis are all very common — and very annoying. They can cause persistent discomfort, and some people may develop recurring versions of these infections, especially if they can’t access appropriate treatment. (And as an FYI, people with penises can get UTIs too — it’s just less common).
- Feeling confused about UTIs? We’ll get you caught up on the basics.
- Feel like you always have a UTI? Here are six reasons why you might keep getting them.
- UTIs are treatable with antibiotics. Here’s what you should know about them.
- So, can you still have sex if you or your partner has a UTI? It’s up to you, so consider your comfort!
- Vaginas are meant to smell like…vagina. So, what’s normal?
- Vaginal discharge is normal — unless it isn’t. Here’s what different types of discharge mean, and how you can use your discharge to track your vaginal health.
Dating, Relationships, and Communication
You might date in college or you might not. While some people might feel pressure to be in a relationship or to be having sex while they’re in college, remember: The only “right time” is the time that feels right for you.
All relationships deserve care and intentionality, whether they’re fleeting (like a one-night stand), casual (like a friends-with-benefits or ongoing hookup situation), or longer-term. When it comes to relationship health, respect, mutuality, and open, curious communication are key.
But still, communication can feel tricky, especially if you were taught that talking about sex is inappropriate.
- Need to tell your partner some important sexual information? Here’s how to do it.
- And while you’re at it, here’s how to tell them what you actually want in bed.
- Not having orgasms even though you want to? It’s possible to talk to your partner about it (without feeling like the world is going to end).
- If you’re curious about nonmonogamy and polyamory, this beginner’s guide will help you out.
- Abusive relationships don’t start out that way — here are 10 early warning signs you should keep in mind.
- If you think a friend is being abused by their partner, here’s how you can support them.
- Domestic violence doesn’t just happen in married couples — college students can experience it, too.
- If you’ve been in an unhealthy relationship, you might have a hard time trusting your own instincts. Here’s how to rebuild your sense of self-trust and come home to your own intuition.
If you made it here, give yourself a pat on the back! Don’t forget to bookmark this page so that you can keep the learning going (and to share with friends).
Have a sex question that wasn’t answered here? Slide into my Instagram DMs (you can find me on Instagram @FeministSexEd) and I may answer them in a future post!
About the Author
Cassandra Corrado is an independent sex educator who teaches at colleges and universities across the United States. Formerly a victim advocate, she mostly teaches on topics related to un/healthy relationships, violence prevention, LGBTQ+ health, and sexual pleasure.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes. The views expressed herein are not sponsored by and do not represent the opinions of Nurx™.