Sexual health is the not-so-fun part of being a sexually active college student, but it’s so important. Just like any other health matter, your sexual health has an impact on your overall well-being, and there will be consequences if you’re not careful. Just like how you have to pass your midterms, you should pass STD tests. Just like you take an pain pills for your migraine, you take a birth control pill to prevent pregnancy. Those are loose comparisons, but you get the idea.
“Treating sexual health care like any other type of care can also help you see it as just another part of your overall wellness, which can decrease any weird or shameful feelings you have about your sexuality,” says Sam Walls, a sex educator and the assistant director at Scarleteen, a website for sex ed. “That’s why I include sex right along with other aspects of physical and mental health when I write about relationships and sex in college settings.”
Here are seven precautions you should be taking in regards to your sexual health, because safe sex is the best sex!
1. Figure out your birth control method
This might seem a little obvious, but there’s a surprising amount of sexually active women not using birth control methods all of the time. According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute in April 2020, 10% of sexually active women at risk of unintended pregnancy are not currently using any contraception.
While the Mean Girls health teacher preaching, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die” might be an exaggeration, getting pregnant is a real possibility. Finding a birth control method, whether it be the pill, an IUD (intrauterine device) or the good ol’ condom, will help ease your mind and diminish the possibility of an unwanted baby-on-the-way. And when we say figure out, we mean really figure it out, because birth control methods can be tricky. You might think you’ll just simply go on the pill, right? But some people react poorly to certain methods, so consult a doctor to find the best and most sustainable method for you.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to contraception and here again, having an open, honest chat with a health care provider is crucial,” says Fred Wyand, Director of Communications for the American Sexual Health Association. “Ask about options, pros and cons of each, and use that to determine what fits best for you.”
The American Sexual Health Association has a birth control comparison chart and Scarleteen also has birth control bingo to help weigh options. Walls says things like frequency, side effects, effectiveness, etc. are all worth considering. And while a thorough Google search might give you some deets, a health professional will be your best resource for picking a birth control method.
“[Planned Parenthood] worked with me to find the best birth control for me (the shot) and getting tested there was quick and professional,” Marisa Pieper, a sophomore at ASU, says.
Consider doubling up on birth control methods, too. “We’re big fans of the buddy method of contraception, where you combine two contraception options to further decrease the risks that come with sexual activity,” Walls says. “Part of the reason we encourage this method is that hormonal methods of birth control, like the pill or the IUD, don’t protect against STIs. You need to pair them with a barrier method, like a condom, if you want to decrease your STI risk too. Combining contraceptives means that if something goes wrong with one method, you still have pregnancy protection from the second method.” Better safe sex than sorry sex.
After you figure out which birth control method (or methods) work for you, get a hold of it, whether it’s getting the prescription filled, ordering it online or popping by your local drugstore. Then learn about them. Figure out the side effects. How long you need to be on it before it’s effective. It’s best to figure out birth control before it becomes a concern.
“When I was having an intimate moment with my partner, I learned that the condom broke, and that was a wake-up call for me,” says Jessica. “I immediately bought Plan B that night. I couldn’t stop thinking about the possibility of being pregnant, and after this experience, I began researching and looking into the birth control options because I can’t live life on the edge and accidents happen more often than you think.”
2. Condoms. Condoms. Condoms!
Like Walls says, the birth control buddy system should include a barrier method too, which is most commonly condoms. If you’re on the pill or have an IUD, both extremely effective birth control methods, then you might think you’re set. No babies? No problems. Wrong-o. Condoms are always a good idea.
“Hormonal birth control methods like the pill are tremendous with pregnancy prevention but don’t do anything regarding STD prevention, so using a condom is still important,” Wyand says.
Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as condom safety too. “Never keep them in your wallet, pocket or places of high friction. Try to keep them in air-controlled room-temperature locations for as long as possible. A safe space in your room works great,” says Annie Bryan, a Saint Louis University student and intern and volunteer with Planned Parenthood. “Not your car!”
3. Get tested for STIs
…And more than once. “All partners should get at least one new full round of STI testing three to six months into a relationship, then keep testing once a year,” says Walls. And you should never feel weird about going in to get tested.
“Doctors/OBGYNs do this kind of stuff all the time,” Annie says. “My doctor has me tested each time I come in no matter what, so it's super chill! Don't be afraid—they went through a lot of school to see what's going on in your pee.” It’s their job to know what going on, but it’s your job to seek out the testing.
Again, we hear this all the time, but a lot of students just assume that if they don’t have symptoms they must be a-ok. Um, were you not there for that scary high school health class when they told you there are asymptomatic STDs? STDs are out there, and they’re more common than you’d like to hear. In 2016, the Center for Disease Control said “nearly half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15–24 years.” Guess who fits into that demographic?
Keeping tabs down there for abnormal symptoms might give you some indication if you might have an STI, since some symptoms, like odd discharge and sores, are bright red flags. However, there's not always obvious proof since lots of STIs are asymptomatic. “If you’re sexually active, the only way to know your STI status or the STI status of a partner is to get tested,” Walls says.
4. Learn about sex itself
A lot of people kind of just learn as they go when it comes to sex—trial and error. And that’s fine, but only to an extent. When considering STDs, contraception, UTIs, etc. knowing what is going on can help you understand how to have safe sex, in all senses of the word.
For example, STDs can be transmitted without having vaginal sex. UTIs are often caused by sex. Condoms can be more likely to break under certain conditions. These are all things you should know. Knowing this shouldn't take away from enjoying sex though. If anything, learning about sex will give you peace of mind and allow you to make decisions accordingly.
“As long as you’re taking steps to be safe and everything is consensual, there’s no shame in pursuing sexual adventures, just like there’s no shame in deciding to not be sexual,” Walls says.
5. Keep it clean
Not like PG, but like hygienically clean. UTIs are not cute, and sex can cause them if you don't wash up. Annie has some good tips to keep things all neat and tidy so bacteria doesn’t infect your urinary tract. “Don't mix butt stuff with vulva stuff without cleaning up. Pee after sexual activity, and shower if you can! Stay hydrated always,” Annie advises.
No one wants to be in pain when they pee, so keep your hygiene in mind.
6. Talk to your partner(s)
Whether you’re in a committed relationship with your sexual partner or just hooking up for one night, figuring out sexual history can be important.
"I’d say the big three conversation topics are safer sex, boundaries and desires. Having the safer sex talk means discussing STI status, what contraception is being used, if the activity could cause pregnancy, and any other health issues, like chronic pain, that could influence comfort or safety during sex that a partner should be aware of," Walls says. "Boundaries and desires go hand in hand when you discuss them, and we suggest people use a tool like our yes, no, maybe so list to help them have that conversation."
In terms of your physical health, safe sex should be an ongoing conversation. “Talk to a partner about safer sex, both before having sex in a relationship but also as the relationship unfolds and perhaps changes,” Wyand says.
That’s obviously easier said than done. For people having casual sex, asking about their “number” or when the last time they got tested might feel like it’ll kill the mood, and maybe it will. But it will also kill the mood when you have to call up your sexual partners and tell them you got an STD. Not fun. These conversations can be awkward, so maybe try and ease into them.
“I think a great place to start a conversation about sexual health is by talking to your sexual partner about what they like,” says Annie. “Literally, ‘is this nice?’ works, and you can continue the topic from there… Never be afraid to open up the conversation.”
The American Sexual Health Association has online tools that can help you think about how to approach these conversations, but the most important thing is to have them. “Be your own advocate,” Wyand says. “Speak up with your health care provider and with your partner. Don’t be afraid to initiate these conversations and remember it’s not only smart, it’s absolutely your right to do so.”
It’s your body and your health, so be proactive.
7. Talk to a doctor
Besides just birth control and STDs, Walls says just going to your doctor and getting your lady bits all checked out is super important. “Yearly check-ups help you know if everything is a-okay downstairs or if there are any issues that you need to address,” Walls says.
The best person to talk to about your sexual health questions? Find a doctor you trust and feel comfortable talking to. There are a lot of conversations to be had. “Which STD tests might be right for each of us as individuals? What if the partner resists using a condom or isn’t attuned to our comfort level regarding birth control?” Wyand lists as questions to consider.
Chances are, your campus might have an excellent resource for sexual health. If so—great! However, some campuses aren’t quite with the times, and if so, Wyand recommends Planned Parenthood, which has a pretty widespread network and clinics in the community. “I go to Planned Parenthood for birth control and STD testing because scheduling is super easy, they're very professional and they go above and beyond to make sure you have the resources and information you need,” Marisa says.
What’s important is that you’re talking about it with your partner and a professional. “STD testing is about more than simply taking a swab or drawing some blood, and contraception involves more than taking a pill or unrolling a condom,” Wyand says. “It’s not only about having the tools to promote sexual health but using them correctly and appropriately. A big part of doing that is having frank discussions with our medical team and partners.” You shouldn't care about other people speculating about you and how you take care of yourself sexually.
“Try not to let shame or stigma get in the way of looking after your sexual health," says Walls. "Things like having honest conversations with partners about birth control, being proactive about STI testing and keeping a stash of safer sex supplies in your room are all great habits to develop if you choose to be sexual. They’re not signs of some moral failing, but they are signs that you’re being responsible and considerate of your health and the health of any partners you have. It’s all about what feels right for you.”
Be smart and safe about your sexual health!