College is a time when many young people experiment and learn more about themselves. Some may have romantic relationships and even engage in sexual activity for the first time.
But experimenting with sex has risks. Sex without a condom can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in October on the spread of STDs in the United States. The CDC is the main government agency dealing with public health in the U.S.
The CDC report showed cases of gonorrhea in the U.S. increased by 13 percent between 2014 and 2015. Cases of syphilis rose by 19 percent. And the number of cases of chlamydia grew to 1.5 million -- the highest level the CDC has ever recorded.
The report showed the majority of cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea were among people age 15 to 24. Most college students in the U.S. are between 18 and 25 years old.
Eloisa Llata is a medical researcher working on STD prevention for the CDC. Llata says throughout history, STDs have affected people between the ages of 15 and 24 more than any other group in the U.S.
But she says the college environment does create unique risks. Llata notes that a student can come from a small community with a limited number of sexual partners to an area with a larger population.
She also says the college experience can lead young people to engage in risky behavior.
"These folks tend to be unmarried, have maybe more than one partner at a time, and college might be an area where things like binge drinking and drug use might play a larger role."
The CDC reported in April that the pregnancy rate among women age 15 to 19 in the U.S. reached an all-time low. Llata says this change is because more young people are using contraceptive methods such as the birth control pill. The pill is a type of medicine women must take every day to prevent pregnancies.
But the pill does not prevent the spread of STDs.
Llata says getting an STD has serious consequences. STDs can affect a woman’s ability to have children and may put people at greater risk for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Why have STD rates gone up?
Laura Lindberg, a research scientist with the Guttmacher Institute, says the rise in STD rates is not yet a major cause for concern. The Guttmacher Institute is a nonprofit organization that studies sexual health and policy in the U.S.
Lindberg argues that a major reason the number of reported cases of STDs has gone up is because more people now have access to healthcare.
People do not know they have an STD unless they get tested for STDs, she says. And most people do not go to the doctor because they believe they have an STD. Lindberg notes people most often get an STD test while they at the doctor for another reason.
She argues sexual activity among young people has not gone up in ways doctors can measure. And condom use has decreased only a little. So, Lindberg says, the increase in STDs shows only that more young people are getting tested.
Also, the increase is not enough information to prove the STD rate among young people will continue to increase, she adds.
Why aren’t young people more careful?
But Lindberg admits there is a problem: many young people do not think about the consequences of risky sexual activity. She says they are embarrassed about discussing sexual health. And, she says, they worry that if they get tested their parents will learn they are sexually active.
Lindberg notes that the only people not at risk for STDs are those in long-term relationships with a single partner. She says most relationships in college are newer and those involved may not limit themselves to one partner. This means sexually active college students should get tested regularly.
But Lindberg says young people face a bigger problem than just embarrassment: education.
"Today’s college students are part of a generation whose sex education that they received prior to college has been very weak. Many of them did not receive comprehensive sex education. They did not receive instruction and information about birth control. Instead, what they got was some version of an 'abstinence until marriage program' which left out key information about using condoms and contraception to protect themselves. So today’s college students need information. They need medically accurate information. They need honest information. And they need complete information."
A 2015 CDC report found fewer than half of the high schools in the U.S. taught all the suggested topics in their sex education classes. For example, Lindberg says, many young people may not know that most STDs can be treated. And they may not know that the birth control pill prevents only pregnancies. Couples may be risking STDs by not using condoms.
Lindberg adds that STDs are a much bigger problem for young people who are not attending college. Often these young people live in communities with less money. This means they have less access to healthcare and STD testing.
Also, the American Medical Association, the American College Health Association and over 100 other organizations say sex education programs that only teach about waiting for sex until marriage do not work.
Still, colleges can do a great deal to help their students, says Debby Herbenick. Herbenick is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. She is also the director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion in the university’s School of Public Health.
Herbenick and others in the center teach classes about human sexuality and gender. She says young men and women need to learn about how to respect each other and their own bodies.
"They don’t always know that sexual pleasure is a good thing and that it’s something that, in fact, adults do expect them to explore and be experienced in. Some of them have been really shamed and just been taught that sex is bad. I think that many young people are just trying to figure out how to create sexual lives that are respectful, that are healthy. And they are looking to adults to support them in that."
Herbenick says schools can support students by providing STD testing and sexual health counseling in their health centers. If they do not have the resources to do so, schools should direct the students to other places that can help.
She also suggests that schools can invite speakers to talk about healthy relationships and sexual activity. And most of all, Herbenick believes schools should require students to take at least one class about sexuality.
As Laura Lindberg at the Guttmacher Institutes notes, there should never be just one conversation about sexual health.
I’m Pete Musto
Pete Musto reported this story for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.
We want to hear from you. How is sexual education taught in your country? What kinds of sexual health resources or services do universities in your country offer? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.
Words in This Story
romantic – adj. of, relating to, or involving love between two people
condom – n. a thin rubber covering that a man wears on his penis during sex in order to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant or to prevent the spread of diseases
gonorrhea – n. a disease of the sex organs that is spread by sexual contact
syphilis – n. a very serious disease that is spread through sexual intercourse
chlamydia – n. a disease of the sex organs that is spread by sexual contact
unique – adj. very special or unusual
binge drinking – n. the drinking of a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time
contraceptive – n. a drug or device, such as birth control pills or a condom, that is used to prevent a woman from becoming pregnant
pill – n. a small, rounded object that you swallow and that contains medicine or vitamins
consequence(s) – n. something that happens as a result of a particular action or set of conditions
embarrassed – adj. to be made to feel confused and foolish in front of other people
comprehensive – adj. including many, most, or all things
abstinence – n. the practice of not doing or having something that is wanted or enjoyable
accurate – adj. free from mistakes or errors
shame(d) – v. to force someone to act in a specified way by causing feelings of shame or guilt
counseling – n. advice and support that is given to people to help them deal with problems or make important decisions