Back to school is prime time for poor sexual health

Students are not hooking up safely

Back-to-post-secondary time can represent many things to many people — anything from a brief surge of elation at the fact that you can actually get college credits for taking a class on fantasy literature to a reluctant dedication to pass the last few classes required for the now-useless degree to apathy at realizing that universities are often as Chris Hedges put it oh-so-wonderfully “corporate drone factories.”

But this time of year brings one principle more universal than all the others: shitty sexual health. Lately we’ve all seen far-more-than-enough stories written by baby boomers about the rise of “hook-up culture” — as if that’s a new thing. The underlying point however is sound. Young people have a lot of sex. Often with a lot of different people. Unfortunately many don’t know how to have it safely or if they do they choose not to and university tends to compound that problem. STIs thrive in such an environment.

“This is a prime time for poor sexual health” says Pam Krause the executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Centre. “Especially when you combine it with being away from home for the first time for lots of people and this culture that’s reinforced to me all the time by students across Canada of partying and lots of non-consensual sex because people are intoxicated. You’re kind of in this phase of embracing adulthood but at the same time there’s lots of stuff you haven’t tried out — you can end up in quite a dangerous situation that you never thought you’d end up in.”

Plenty of young folk have been ending up with some not-so-pleasant companions as of late. According to a 2011 Alberta Health Services report the under-25 crowd made up just under three-quarters of all reported chlamydia cases between 2004 and 2009 and just over half of the same age group made up new cases of gonorrhoea. Both of those STIs doubled in frequency between 1999 and 2009. There aren’t any official stats on the contributions Alberta’s university students have made to the count but concern for the demographic is obviously justified.

“We know that during that period of life it tends to be the time of people’s first sexual interactions” says Susan Cress the executive director of AIDS Calgary. “Youth tend to be really cautious about talking about their sexual health not having a lot of resources to go to and figuring out how to negotiate or talk about safer sex when you’re just starting to be sexually active.”

Both Krause and Cress contend that the issue of STIs (and to a lesser degree blood-borne pathogens like HIV and Hepatitis C which are statistically less common in the under-25 age group) doesn’t suddenly arise with the commencement of classes — rather it’s a culmination of contributing factors that manifest in the university environment. People are in a “vibrant part of their sexual history” as Cress puts it. Put 10000 such people in a building together and opportunities will arise.

Alberta also has a notoriously iffy record of sexual education in K-12. The province still doesn’t have mandatory comprehensive sex education with 2009’s controversial Bill 44 granting parents the ability to remove their children from such lessons. That can serve as an impediment to spreading the importance of using condoms lube gloves and dental dams. Brett Aberle a support worker at Calgary Outlink notes that the latter two are of particular concern considering that the push for consistent and proper protection has been even less frequent in the queer women’s community.

“Knowledge about STIs and safe sex is pretty mixed depending on what part of the community a person is in” Aberle notes. “There’s been a lot of good public health education on condom usage. I just don’t think there’s been the same push in our culture and sexual health education for using dental dams and gloves.”

But while it might seem like a grim picture there’s positive change. Although former provincial health minister Ron Liepert rejected a demand in 2008 for a government-funded syphilis awareness campaign (unhelpfully advising that people “have to take more responsibility for their own personal health”) his cabinet successor Gene Zwozdesky introduced a provincewide strategy three years later. Late last year the Calgary Catholic school board finally reversed their ban on giving female students the HPV vaccine. Aberle points out that there’s plenty of solid information on the web — the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange (CATIE) is one such example.

But in the end it’s all about being prepared.

“Often people have a hard time admitting that they want to be sexually active” says Cress. “Have safe sex supplies around — condom and lube. Look at your ability to have a conversation around your sexual health needs or to negotiate safer sex. Have a sense of what your own personal boundaries are. Listen to your body in terms of what your body’s telling you — if you’re feeling good and safe and ready to have sex. The biggest thing is the reason people don’t talk about sexual health and wellness is because they feel that it’s not okay. Sexual health is part of a healthy sexual continuum so exploring and understanding that is perfectly normal.”

Have questions about safe sex STIs/BBPs gender identity sexual orientation pregnancy testing/termination or birth control? Get in touch with these great resources:

• Campus wellness services and pride centres

Calgary Sexual Health Centre

STI clinic at Sheldon M. Chumir Heath Centre

Sexual and Reproductive Health clinical services at East Calgary Health Centre South Calgary Health Centre and Sunridge Professional Building

Calgary Outlink

AIDS Calgary

Kensington Clinic Abortion Services

Abortion Services at Peter Lougheed Centre