When I sat down for an interview with Maria a couple months ago for a 34th Street Magazine article about sexually transmitted infections at Penn, she had almost as many questions as I did. In the country where she was raised, “Condoms and sex are very, very taboo … You’re not supposed to have sex before marriage.”
As a result, the senior, whose name was changed to protect her identity, knew very little about sexual health or about the STI that she had contracted just before coming to Penn (Chlamydia). She had also never been told that she could contract an STI through oral sex.
Unfortunately, this conversation is not as uncommon as you’d think and highlights the importance of developing a general sexual education program at Penn.
When it comes to sexual health, we each learn things differently and from different places. For some students, their pre-Penn background provides them with enough knowledge about sex (should they choose to have it before marriage). For others, the lack of knowledge is, to put it bluntly, just dangerous.
And it’s not just international students. Due to a recent rise in abstinence-only education in the United States, “we have a whole generation who didn’t receive that education,” said Deborah Mathis, chief administrator at Penn Woman’s Health.
But, while we spend our first few days at Penn attending seminars on campus safety and alcohol consumption, the University does not attempt to provide a standardized sexual-health education. It needs to do so before freshmen come to Penn.
I understand that sex education has caused much controversy across the country. But 85 percent of students at Penn consider themselves sexually active, according to Susan Villari, Penn Office of Health Promotion and Education director. And, according to Student Health Service Director Evelyn Weiner, students who identify as having had abstinence-only education have a higher STI rates than the average. There’s a point at which we need to stop pretending that abstinence-only education is effective for Penn students.
Only 66 percent of freshman respondents to the 2008 Penn Health and Wellness Survey claim they use condoms most of all of the time when having sex. This careless attitude toward sexual health is part of the reason why many STI numbers are going up nationally, especially among the college-aged population. Penn is no exception — the numbers have been on the rise here over the past few years.
There are a handful of ways that Penn can choose to address the problem. The University could ask students to attend class-wide sessions on sexual education during NSO. It could also educate students through a program similar to AlcoholEdu, the online course students are required to complete before coming to Penn.
The most useful program for students, however, would be an alcohol and sex-education program in one. The cultures surrounding sex and alcohol at Penn are intertwined — so much so that Penn is now incorporating information about sexual violence on campus into AlcoholEdu. Combining the topics would prevent students from having to complete two courses while still providing students with personalized information and quizzes based on prior knowledge. From the comfort of your own home, students would complete the coursework and be armed with information vital to staying safe.
The way I see it, if a two-hour course on sexual health can stop even one student from contracting a dangerous STI and potentially passing it on to another student, I don’t see how we could not have one. Relying on family, friends, sometimes high schools and voluntary sexual-health programs at Penn to educate students on sexual safety is clearly not enough.
Juliette Mullin is a College senior from Portland, Ore. She is the former Executive Editor of the DP. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. In Case You Missed Me appears on Tuesdays.
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