by Emerson Karsh-Lombardo

It is that time of the year again! We’re packing up our minivans, parents are kissing their children farewell, command hooks are flying off the shelves, students are moving into communal housing, and college classes are about to begin—it’s back to school time! So, just in time for school, here is a college student’s guide to safe sex.

For most students in America, going to college is a time to further one’s education and a time to explore and discover new things. Shockingly, sex is one of those things! 

The 2019 National College Health Assessment found that 64 percent of students had sex in the past 12 months. Why is this? It’s many students’ first time living away from parents or guardians with a higher concentration of their peers; Which also means there are more people to talk to, date, and have safer sex with. College becomes an open space for sexual exploration.

College is also a time in which “hook-up culture” is alive and thriving. Hook-up culture refers to accepting and encouraging casual sexual encounters, including one-night stands and other related activities.

Whether you are a student interested in exploring your sexuality at college or a parent wanting to equip your student with the safest sex tools, below is the ultimate college student’s guide on how to navigate safer sex while on campus! 

But first, why do we call it safer sex and not just safe sex?

Partnered sexual activity is never 100% safe. For example, condoms are only 98% effective in protecting against STIs. This leads to a 2% chance of contracting an STI. Overall, using a condom is the safer option but can never be completely safe with a 0% risk. The term safer sex also encourages more open communication, frequent testing, discussion of birth control methods, and a more comprehensive or holistic approach to sex.

With that in mind, let’s get to the good stuff: 

 Buying & Storing Condoms

The best place to get condoms is at your local grocery store, gas station, or drug store! Anyone can buy them; there is no age requirement or showing of identification required. Condoms can be behind glass or behind the counter in some places, so just ask a store worker to grab the one you want!

At most college campuses, there are locations where you can get condoms for free. The best way to find out this information is a quick google search of  “your college campus + sexual health resources”. Like the student health clinic or sexual health organization, most places will hand them out, but it looks different for every university!

To store condoms, it is always best to keep them in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Places like drawers, cabinets, or underneath in the bathroom sink works perfectly. They can get too hot and easily damaged; Avoid keeping them in wallets, backpacks, or glove compartments. 

Before using the condom, check for an expiration date, any damage, discoloration, or dryness– If any of that is present, do not use it!

If you prefer to order your condoms online, Team RW recommends Royal (Use the code RACHEL10 for 10% off), Cake, Maude & PS Condoms.

STI Testing: When, Why, & How Do I Access Testing

The CDC recommends that those who are sexually active get yearly checks for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. 

However, we recommend getting an STI test when you: 

  • Have new or multiple sexual partners
  • You or your partners have new or other sexual partners
  • It’s been more than three to six months since your last test if you are sexually active, recommended by the National Coalition for Sexual Health 
  • Notice any changes in your body, such as painful urination or sores
  • Had sex with someone diagnosed with an STI
  • Had sex without a condom, or the condom broke

The best way to access STI testing on campus is through the student health center.

Just like finding condoms, a quick google search of  “your campus + STI testing” will pull up results. If this doesn’t pull up any results, call your health center directly and ask them about any STI testing they may provide. 

Unfortunately, STI testing can include out-of-pocket costs, so be sure to ask your health center the cost of the test and whether insurance will cover it. If financially accessing an STI test is difficult, talk to the health center about any aid they may offer or school-based insurance options. 

Lastly, it is essential to clarify why you are taking the STI test– whether you are doing it preventatively or have been directly exposed to an STI. Voicing this is important as some STI panels do not cover certain STI tests! So be sure to say something if you’re looking for a specific test!  

If you don’t have a health center on campus or cannot access STI testing, some companies offer at-home STI testing & accept insurance. Be sure, however, to check the cost and whether these companies offer an insurance option because, without insurance, this option can be expensive!.

Team RW’s recommendation is Let’s Get Checked. You can learn more about them here. Additionally, Wisp is another favorite — They offer treatment for sexual infections that aren’t necessarily sexually transmitted like treatment for BV, yeast infections, etc. (And don’t forget about Momotaro Apotheca for a natural solution for those who are sexually active.)

How Do I Access  Birth Control On Campus?

Like accessing STI testing, the best way to access birth control on campus is through the student health center! Most campuses provide birth control methods such as birth control pills, IUD insertion, or the Nexplanon injection.

If you are concerned about birth control, set up a gynecology appointment at the student clinic to talk to the doctor about your options. You can also set up a phone appointment if you were seeing a gynecologist before college to discuss the best route to take!

If you are looking for Plan B as emergency contraception, you can ask your student clinic whether they provide that or go to your local drugstore or pharmacy. By the way, you do not have to be a certain age or have a prescription to purchase morning-after pills. You may also find emergency contraception behind the counter or some glass. You can also get the morning-after pill at many family planning or health department clinics and Planned Parenthood health centers.

There are also delivery-based pharmacies like Capsule that will deliver Plan B right to you; whether you’re looking for preventative contraception or emergency contraception. Wisp, the company mentioned above, also offers birth control, emergency contraception, and much more. We highly recommend trying out one of these direct-to-you services if you can because of the convenience and efficiency.

How Do I Talk To My Partner(s) About Safer Sex?

Talking openly with your partner(s) is one of the best ways to navigate STIs, unwanted pregnancy, and safer sex. For example, before using a condom, there is a conversation on condom use. 

Open communication is a vital part of approaching safer sex, but it can be awkward- and that is normal! Our society creates so much shame around sex, especially casual sex, that most sexually active students entering college do not have the tools to navigate conversations surrounding STIs, pregnancy, or whether there are multiple partners in the picture.

The best way to bring up the conversation is before sexual activity starts with an open and honest attitude. 

Here are some great examples of how to bring up a safer sex conversation with a potential sexual partner:

  • I got tested for STIs last month, and my results came back negative. Have you been tested recently? 
  • For total transparency, I think it is important to share that I got tested for STIs recently and found out I had chlamydia. I took medicine, but it showed me how common STIs are. 
  • I want to be honest with you and let you know I have an STI test scheduled soon, but I wear condoms with my partners. Are you able to get an STI test soon? I am more than willing to help you find STI resources on campus! 
  • Hey, your safety is of the utmost importance to me, so I would like to use condoms during our sexual activity to prevent STIs.
  • I would love to let you know that I am on birth control as I am not planning to have children any time soon but would also like to use condoms to prevent STIs.
  • Before we have sex, I would like to talk about what steps we are taking to prevent pregnancy or what we would do if I become pregnant.
  • I just want to be honest with you and let you know I have other sexual partners, so I would love to use condoms to practice safer sex with you and my other partners.

These are just a few examples of how to bring up a safer sex conversation with a partner! The best way to bring it up is whatever feels most comfortable and authentic to you. 

Overall, college is a time to explore and experience new things. It is a time where sexual exploration and activity are accessible, exciting, and new. Having the tools to explore as safely as possible is extremely important. Unfortunately, accessing these tools, like STI tests or birth control, can feel daunting while students are newly independent. Hopefully, you can rest a little more easily knowing that this guide is for any student interested in exploring sex in college with the most safety.