Editor’s note: The student in this story requested to remain anonymous. The Rocket refers to her by her first initial.
Every year millions of students step onto college campuses, pursuing an education and new relationships.
While some students, like E., a 19-year-old who attends Slippery Rock University (SRU), are making sure to protect themselves from COVID-19 while hooking up, they also at times forgo safer sex practices. Those choices account for people aged 15 to 24 representing half of all new sexually transmitted diseases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
E. agreed to speak with The Rocket on her experiences dating in Slippery Rock and the health risks of hooking up that she’s had while a student at SRU.
For E., swiping through dating apps like Tinder and Hinge is a balancing act of finding a man to hook-up with, while not closing the door completely to a more romantic involvement.
Hooking up, casual sexual encounters between those who are not dating, has been growing in popularity with a 2013 study finding “60% to 80% of North American college students have had some sort of hook-up experience.”
But, over the past few years, the number of some sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) contracted in Pennsylvania have risen.
Increases in gonorrhea and primary and secondary syphilis in 2020 saw 30-year highs across the commonwealth, according to a 2021 advisory from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
After a year of being single and hooking up, using items like condoms occasionally, E. was told she by her physician she had contracted an STD in the fall of 2021.
“Obviously, you think it’s not going to happen to you,” E. said. “I was humbled.”
Data provided by the Student Health Services (SHS) show there have been 24 cases of chlamydia and 10 cases of gonorrhea reported this academic year.
Even though she was sexually active with multiple partners, E. didn’t think of having any sort of testing done since she had no symptoms and was feeling fine, but her doctor insisted on it.
STD testing has been a challenge across the nation with COVID-19 taking up so many resources and SRU is no different, according to Kris Benkeser, director of student health and wellness.
“It’s all COVID, all the time,” Benkeser said.
The pandemic didn’t keep people from wanting testing services but the availability of those services dropped.
In the beginning of the pandemic a lot of the nurses working at SHS were focused on the pandemic. With university closures and a move to a virtual environment, the number of STD testing being done on campus decreased, Benkeser said.
The positive test caused some apprehension at first for E., who said her peers’ views on those who have contracted a STD were quite negative.
“If you think someone has a STD [they’re] like, ‘They just have sex with everybody,’” E. said.
For E., whether you are sleeping with one person or 12 isn’t what matters when it comes to the possibility of contracting a STD, safe practices are.
“Having a [sexually transmitted infection] doesn’t make you a h-,” E. said. “It just takes one person.”
E. made sure to contact her partners and inform them she had tested positive and encouraged them to get tested as well. Some of the men she reached out to were angry with her, she said.
Others told her they would not bother with getting tested. E. said she would not be meeting them again.
The experience has been eye-opening for her and her close friends. E. said she is open about her sex life and even talking about how having a STD is seen as taboo. Still, it has provided her opportunities to talk about safer sex practices with peers and those she is sexually involved with.
That communication is something Vanessa Vought, health promotion coordinator at SRU, has been advocating for throughout the pandemic. Early on, the pandemic affected how SHS performed their outreach and the content of their messaging.
Forcing the conversation to move online, there was and still is a lot of success in reaching students through social media, Vought said.
Messages and how they are communicated to the campus community are now more adaptable.
“We meet them where they are,” Vought said.
Along with online messaging, students at SRU have access to Protection Connection, an online store where condoms, lubricant and dental dams can be purchased. Staffed by Healthy Outreach through Peer Education (HOPE) employees, orders take one to two days to be fulfilled and can be picked up at SHS.
After taking a month break from sex, E., who has always used birth control, now insists on using condoms every time. The response from her partners has been mixed.
“I’m getting more aggressive about it,” E. said. “Like, if you’re not using a condom, no, it’s not happening.
“Some [guys] are like, ‘Yeah, I’m always going to use it.’”
For those who question the need to use one or agree at first but try to go back on having safer sex, E. gives them an ultimatum.
“I’m literally going to leave if you don’t use a condom,” E. said.
Vought encourages students to enter sexual situations prepared and knowing what types of interactions you want to experience and how they are important to every college student’s sexual health.
“Informed consent includes COVID and mitigating different risks,” Vought said.
For students sexually active, testing is important to their routine health care, Benkeser said.
Testing can be done at SHS through appointment, with most infections able to be tested through either urine or blood work. Students may elect to use their health insurance, but for those who may not want their parents to know they sought testing, the test can be done for a small fee.
Getting the test done is a small price to pay for E., who encourages everyone to have the sex they want, so long as they are being safe.
“Every time you have unprotected sex, every couple of months, get tested,” E. said
If you would like to schedule STD testing at Student Health Services, appointments can be made by calling 724.738.2052.