The State of Sex on College Campuses

By Will Nicholson

Back in 2012, the New York Times ran an article titled “Do College Students Need Sex Ed?” that focused specifically on a concept called “Sex Week.” It originated at Yale and consisted of student groups leading various discussions and campaigns for safe sex on campus. The idea of Sex Week spread to other colleges and became a fairly widespread concept with varying names. However, as the Times article also noted, Sex Week at Yale (and presumably many other schools) ultimately strayed from a conversation about safe sex practices to one about campus sex lives in general.

There’s nothing wrong with this broader conversation. Students need forums to air their thoughts, ideas, and concerns about safe sex practices, “hook-up culture,” sexual identity, etc. But in the midst of these broad topics, concerns about actual safe sex practices being overlooked are legitimate. According to the safer sex guide at Adam & Eve, roughly 4 percent of college students admit to “hardly ever” practicing safe sex. That may sound like a small number. However, considering that an estimated 21 million Americans were enrolled in college in fall of 2014 (per NCES), it translates to over 800,000 college students failing to practice safe sex—and that’s only based on numbers of students willing to admit as much.

This indicates that more needs to be done both in educating college students about safe sex practices and in providing the necessary resources for those practices. Unfortunately, courses and discussions on sex education for college students are few and far between, making it difficult to determine any sort of broad assessment of the state of sex ed. However, initiatives like Yale’s Sex Week and similar practices at other universities are certainly helpful and in other instances, we’ve seen students get even more creative about addressing the topic.

For example, just last month the Indiana University paper, the Indiana Daily Student, published a story about an on-campus fashion show that doubled as sex education and, as one member behind the show termed it, a “sexploration” event. The show consisted of a series of conversations and skits meant to entertain and educate at the same time. Perhaps even more creatively, Buzzfeed points out that graduate students at Boston University recently ran a course called “Hogwarts Sex Ed” that used Harry Potter as a backdrop for conversations about sexual health. The course was part of BU’s “Frisky February” initiative, which is dedicated to discussions on health and wellness.

Beyond student-led education efforts, the most important part of this conversation is whether or not colleges are doing an adequate job of equipping their students to practice safe sex once they know how to. And in this area, there appears to be a gap between perception and reality. Ask Men wrote an article on the topic that began with “Every college has a source of free condoms somewhere on campus.” Thankfully, this is almost true. Most colleges do indeed offer condoms or other forms of birth control, whether in vending machines, at wellness forums, or, most commonly, in student health centers. But to assume that every campus provides free condoms is to ignore two important details: one, that some schools are still refusing to do so; and two, that the existence of free condoms doesn’t mean they’re readily available or easy to find.

Just last fall, an article surfaced in which Fordham University students’ demand for free condoms on campus was portrayed as, arguably, unreasonable. In this particular instance, the conversation was framed from the perspective of Fordham as a Jesuit school, but the beliefs involved in this background should be respected, if not agreed with. In instances like these, students would ultimately be better off searching for nearby health care clinics rather than hoping for on-campus help. Nevertheless, schools like Fordham cannot simply be excluded from the conversation about safe sex on campuses.

Ultimately, there is far more to the issue of safe sex on campuses than these few examples and isolated issues. For the most part, colleges offer at least some resources necessary for safe sex practices. Condoms, STD and pregnancy testing, and in some instances birth control can all be readily available. But this is not true of every school, and an education problem persists as well. While there are plenty of forums and programs focusing on sex education for college students, the majority of them appear to be student-led, and it’s difficult to determine their effectiveness.