When we think about doing the nasty, we don’t always consider the potentially nasty ramifications.
The consequences of sex-gone-wrong have become an epidemic among college students in the United States. One in four have a sexually transmitted infection and more than half are carriers of HPV. If the national statistic holds true at Penn: a quarter of your Management 100 team could have the clap. Ew.
The thought of having an STI is nauseating. After all, no one looks at a penis oozing pus and says, “That’s hot! I want that in me!” Yet far too few college students are regularly tested.
Nursing senior Blake Feldman, who has studied sexual health in nearly every Nursing class he’s taken at Penn, could tell you all the signs and symptoms of common STIs.
Still, he had never been screened for an STI until last semester.
Feldman is not an anomaly. While Student Health Services couldn’t give me a tally of how many individuals are tested each year, they performed 9,169 tests in 2011 — each for an individual STI. Keeping in mind that most people are tested for multiple infections at once and some get tested multiple times a year, this figure could represent less than a few thousand people.
STIs scare the semen out of us — so why do so few get tested regularly? Part of the issue stems from the idea that testing is stigmatized as a consequence of sleeping with someone you shouldn’t.
Underscoring this point, a team of researchers (including Ryan Paquin, a doctoral candidate at Annenberg) recently published a study in Health Communication exploring college students’ opinions on STI testing. Among the top reasons that students avoided testing — despite being the most vulnerable demographic — were embarrassment and the fear that others would draw conclusions about their sex lives.
Susan Villari, the director of Health Promotion and Education at SHS, encourages the view of testing as part of a healthy sex life and practicing safer sex.
“Routine screening is necessary because many infections are asymptomatic and condoms are not 100 percent effective. Early detection is key for treatment as well as to prevent the virus or bacteria from being passed on to a new partner,” Villari said.
If you noticed that your member was spurting a green discharge, you would probably schedule your appointment faster than you could scream “gonorrhea!”
But most STIs display no symptoms at all. In fact, some of the nastiest infections, like chlamydia, are nicknamed “silent STIs” because they are typically asymptomatic. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility.
Students may also neglect regular testing because of misconceptions such as “Penn students are ‘clean’” or “it won’t happen to me,” Villari said, adding that “some students are … not sure what to ask for or they are fearful of the results.”
The study in Health Communication the important point that while sex education emphasizes safe sex practices like condom use, there hasn’t been much focus on testing as part of sexual health maintenance. Testing for STIs shouldn’t be viewed as a consequence of unsafe sex, rather as a part of making sex safer.
And what if you know you’re clean, or if you’ve never had sex at all?
Everyone — whether shacking up with an entire sorority or remaining completely abstinent — needs to take control of their sexual health. Deborah Mathis, the Women’s Health administrative chief at SHS emphasized this by saying “healthy behaviors and health maintenance are important for everyone, including non-sexually active students.”
Mathis’ recommendation for men includes regular testicular self-exams, which means rolling your rocks between your fingers in search of unusual lumps, bumps or shapes. This is crucial for college men because testicular cancer is most prevalent in men under 30.
For women, maintaining your lady bits requires more than just a Brazilian wax. Mathis suggests self-examining breasts as well as scheduling annual pelvic and breast exams in addition to a pap smear every other year until the age of 30.
Sex is fun, until someone shows up with warts all over his or her genitals. Don’t let it happen to you: let’s clean up our sex lives by getting tested, scheduling regular exams and scrutinizing our sexual health.