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Credit: Felicity Yick

Many students on campus are still engaging in sexual relationships during the spring semester despite limitations posed by the ongoing pandemic, worrying some residential advisors and administrators about sexual health on campus.

Some RAs believe that sexual health is being overlooked during the pandemic, citing lesser education and resources available in dorms, and urge conversations about safe sexual health to remain a priority on campus. Campus Health administrators have attempted to provide virtual resources to students to educate them on sexual health while expressing concerns over the increased risk of COVID-19 exposure that is a consequence of students being in romantic relationships. 

Laura Monge, a Wharton first year, said that the majority of first-year students are still looking to engage in sexual relationships despite the pandemic. She added that people are more hesitant to form these relationships with someone who is not a member of their pod, however, in order to decrease the odds of exposure to COVID-19.  

"People still want to be sexually active, but I think they are being more selective with their sexual partners," Monge said. 

About two-thirds of college students in the United States are sexually active, according to a 2019 survey by the American College Health Association, which received over 67,000 responses from students at 98 colleges. Edward Gisemba, director of student health promotion at Oberlin College, previously told The Wall Street Journal that roughly 20-30% of Oberlin students have their first sexual encounter at Oberlin College, and that he does not believe those statistics would change due to COVID-19. 

A College junior, who requested anonymity due to privacy concerns, said her friends will often wait until they get a negative COVID-19 test result on Friday and then engage in sexual activity on the weekend. Some of them will then quarantine until they are able to get tested again on Tuesday, as Penn requires undergraduate students living on and off campus to schedule saliva-based COVID-19 screening testing twice a week on pre-assigned days. 

She added that her friends are having more non-in-person sex, such as phone sex, and that they frequently use dating apps, such as Tinder. 

"I think people are going on Tinder more often because they are bored and lonely and crave human connection," the College junior said. 

An RA in Harnwell College House, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from College Houses & Academic Services, said they believe students are now more likely to choose an exclusive romantic relationship over sexual encounters with multiple people. The RA said that their residents have spoken to them about wanting to become "cuffed" in order to avoid spreading COVID-19 through sexual relationships. 

While engaging in sexual activity in an exclusive relationship may put someone at lower risk of getting exposed to COVID-19, Ashlee Halbritter, the director of Campus Health, expressed concerns over what Campus Health calls the "Romeo and Juliet Effect." 

According to Halbritter, the "Romeo and Juliet Effect" happens when a house full of people will form a pod but then allow their romantic partners to enter the pod without considering that each person’s romantic partner already has their own pod. She explained that if one person in this interconnected system tests positive, multiple pods are affected.

RAs in particular have been concerned about prioritizing safe sex and making sure that conversations about sexual health stay afloat amid other concerns related to COVID-19. 

A second-year RA in the Quad, who also requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from CHAS, said they have noticed that the conversation around sexual health on campus has decreased since the pandemic's onset, adding that College House leadership did not provide RAs with sufficient contraceptives prior to the beginning of the spring 2021 semester — which they thought was problematic.

The second-year RA added that during the two-week quiet period when the first years moved in, they were not provided with any contraception whatsoever for their hall residents.

“The majority of neglect happened when the [first years] moved in,” they said. “[But]It’s the time when [they] are all activating Tinder and getting to know each other, so you’re probably going to have a lot of hookups happening in the first two weeks."

In mid-February, once the second-year RA was finally provided with contraceptives, they were told by a Quad house director that they should not leave the contraceptives in public spaces, such as in hallways, because College House leadership did not want to encourage students to meet up in intimate settings.

“If a student wanted a condom, they would have to come to our room, knock on the door, and we'd have to personally give them a singular condom,” they said. "I thought that was not a very good strategy because no student is going to hike up however many steps from wherever in the building at 3 a.m. just to get a condom."

Another RA in Harnwell agreed that contraceptives were not always readily available in on-campus College Houses this semester. They added that they put a box outside their door with contraceptives, pads, and tampons, despite this being against the requests of the Harnwell House Dean, and that only a handful of RAs in Harnwell are doing the same thing.

“Since students have to knock to get into the house office now, there are definitely more barriers for people who want to get condoms, pads, and tampons, because they'd have to ask for them from our house director during business hours, unless their RAGA [residential advisor or graduate associate] is making them available,” the RA said. 

Licinia Barrueco Kaliher, senior director of College Houses & Academic Services, wrote in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that College Houses were distributed condoms differently this year compared to past years based on the University's COVID-19 guidelines, specifically those set by the Student Campus Compact and Wellness

Each house developed their own distribution process managed by the House Staff according to public safety and health guidelines, Kaliher wrote, adding that residents could reach out to either their RA or schedule a time to come to the house office to pick up condoms. Students can also contact Campus Wellness, she wrote.

Lauren Cordova, the health educator at Campus Health, noted that requests for condoms from the College Houses were lower than usual this year. Still, Halbritter said that it is difficult to draw any meaningful conclusion from this data point.

Halbritter added that, while students may be having less sex this year, she hopes they are not having less safe sex.

In order to promote sexual health during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, Halbritter said Student Health Service remained open and accessible for students who wanted to schedule sexually transmitted infections testing and birth control services. 

In addition, Campus Health initiated a six-week, email-delivered sexual health program that started on Feb. 26, 2021, where participants received a weekly document detailing a variety of different topics, such as STIs, barriers and contraception, and boundaries and intimacy.

Cordova said she thinks the most important thing students can do to safely engage in sexual activity during the pandemic is prioritize communication.

"When did you last get tested for an STI? What are you looking for? What kind of barriers or contraception are we going to use?" Cordova said. "And now asking about COVID[-19] too. Do you have a pod? How many people are in that pod? Whom do you live with?"