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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.

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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. 

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:

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!   

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. 

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.  

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). 

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. 

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™.

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