The end of summer means a lot of planning for college students, whether it’s figuring out how to pay for books or pass their classes. However, a topic that’s often forgotten — by educators and students alike — is sexual health.
Sexual health is one subject that you can’t afford to overlook. It factors into both your physical and mental well-being — and being your best self is key to succeeding in school. By making your sexual health a priority, you’re showing that you care about your body and overall well-being. If you’re not taking care of your health, it’s harder to reach the goals you’re trying to meet by going to college in the first place.
Remember: sexual health is for everyone whether you’re friends with benefits, casually hooking up, going on Tinder dates, or in a long-term relationship. Consider this a study guide for what you need to know about sexual health before going back to college:
You don’t have to have sex if you don’t want to
While the media often makes college students look like hormonally charged, sex-obsessed fiends, sex is not a mandatory experience in college — or at all! There are lots of reasons why people don’t have sex. Some people want to wait until marriage or until they find the right person. Some sexual trauma survivors don’t have sex because it can trigger negative emotions or memories. Some people are too focused on school or their career to be bothered with sex, and about 1% of the population (70 million people) identifies as asexual, meaning they don’t experience sexual attraction.
Whatever your reason is, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for why you’re not pursuing a sexual relationship while you’re in school (or ever). Not having sex in college is normal, and you shouldn’t feel pressured to do it if you don’t want to.
Remember, no one has to have sex if they don't want to — even if you aren't consciously abstaining or asexual. You know your body and boundaries best, so you should feel empowered to decide what to do with it. Remember to respect others’ no’s when it comes to sex, too. You should never feel pressured to have sex, and neither should your partner.
Talk to your partner about sex in a non-sexual setting
Hopefully, by now, most young people know the saying — if you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t be doing it. Meaning, if you can’t talk to your partner about sex, then maybe you shouldn’t be having it. However, talking to your partner about sex doesn’t have to be awkward. One way to keep it casual is by bringing it up in a non-sexual situation.
Healthline suggests the best time to talk about sex is when you’re not having it. That way you’re both on the same page instead of going into sex blindly. An easy way to start the conversation could be on the car ride home after a date, while watching a movie at home, or even through text. If sex has already been brought up, you could say, “If we go back to your place and hook up, what would that look like for you?” or “If we decide to hook up later, do you have condoms, or would I need to bring some?” Talking about your expectations of sex and protection beforehand will help you have a safer — and more satisfying — sex life.
On top of protection, it’s also important to discuss your boundaries. Let your partner know what you like and what’s off-limits. An example could be, “I like being touched here but not here,” or “I like being kissed on the neck, but I don’t want hickeys.” You have the right to say no at any time, including when you feel uncomfortable or if a certain act crosses your boundaries. You can also let your partner know if you don’t know what you like or don’t like, and you want them to go slowly while you figure things out.
Practice digital consent
Thanks to cell phones, communication is literally right at your fingertips, so it’s not unusual to see students walking around campus talking and texting all the time. Since this constant connectivity is the new norm, it’s easy to forget that our interactions over the phone impact our relationships. We often talk about consent in real life but rarely when it comes to phones. While sexual expectations are important to discuss with your partners, it’s also important to set digital boundaries in any relationship you’re in.
So let’s talk about digital consent. Discussing digital expectations is important because people use technology differently; some people like texting continuously throughout the day while others might prefer to call. An easy way to start the conversation could be asking your partner if they like getting texts during class or how they feel about sharing photos of you together online.
However, setting digital boundaries is especially important when it comes to sexting. Not everyone is comfortable with sexting, and that’s OK. However, if you and your partner enjoy sexting, always ask before sending nude photos — even if you’re in a long-term relationship or you’ve sent them in the past. You could say, “I’d love to show you exactly how I’m feeling. Can I send you a pic?” If your partner says no, don’t send them a picture and don’t pressure them to send pictures of themselves. Respect their boundaries and steer the conversation in a different direction.
Make your STI appointments correspond with your annual wellness visit
As a college student balancing school, part-time jobs, and a social life, sometimes scheduling doctors’ appointments can get pushed to the bottom of your priority list. However, for people with vaginas, it’s recommended to visit your gynecologist at least once a year, and STI testing is a normal part of the visit if you’re sexually active. An easy way to remember your annual check-up is to plan it at the same time as your back-to-school physical. Likewise, male-bodied people who are sexually active should have regular checkups that include STI testing.
While the thought of getting tested might be scary, remember that it’s not only normal but responsible. It shows that you’re taking your health seriously. If you have a new partner who’s nervous about getting tested, suggest going together or seeking out confidential STD testing resources.
Even if you’re not sexually active, it’s still important to visit your doctor annually for maintaining your sexual health and avoiding possible problems you might be unaware of.
Know your campus resources
While most campuses have a student health center, not all campuses have accessible sexual health resources. A 2016 survey by the Trojan company showed that 93% of colleges surveyed provided STI screenings, but only 24% provided the service for free. In the same study, 76% of colleges did not provide free condoms.
However, more campuses are advocating for better, more accessible sexual health resources. Colleges like Stanford have implemented vending machines that provide students with 24/7 access to the morning after pill. Other campuses have vending machines filled with condoms and over-the-counter contraceptives. To learn what specific services are available at your college, visit your campus’ health center.
Many campuses also have resources for survivors of sexual assault. If you or someone you know has experienced any form of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or other forms of sexual violence, connect with a community rape crisis center to learn about what supportive resources that might be available on and around your campus. If your campus has invested in providing comprehensive services to survivors, as many have, you may have excellent support just a short walk away. If not, supportive services may be available in the city around your campus or the next city over. If you have a hard time locating resources near you, contact RAINN to help you find a rape crisis center in your area.