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Sex on Campus: Risky Business

Many college students engage in unsafe practices, experts say

THURSDAY, Nov. 6, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- College social life nowadays is often a whirl of Saturday football games, Greek rushes, dorm parties -- and, all too often, unprotected sex.

That's the view of health experts who are dismayed that college students, despite all the publicity on safe sex, typically fail to realize how much they're at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.

In fact, almost two-thirds of the annual cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) involve people younger than 25, the federal government estimates. And the incidence of STDs has been rising in the last few decades, in part because young people are becoming sexually active at an earlier age, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

If that weren't worrisome enough, a recent national survey by the Society for Adolescent Medicine found that 73 percent of sexually active college students reported having unprotected sex while in school.

Perceptions could help explain why: The online survey found that 68 percent of those who had unprotected sex did not believe they were at risk of contracting an STD.

That's no surprise, says Ellen M. Daley, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida School of Public Health.

Daley teaches a course that deals specifically with the consequences of unprotected sex. But, she says, "very few of the students I teach are aware of the possible results of unprotected sex, even if they report having had sex education in middle or high school."

"College students, who are just coming out of their adolescent years, may still have that thinking that teens do that says, 'This will never happen to me' -- an attitude I see all the time," she adds.

The disturbing lack of awareness persists even though most college students know someone who has contracted an STD, says Dr. Lauren Solotar, a psychologist and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.

"They attribute [contracting an STD] to bad luck," Solotar says. "They think, 'This one person was stupid. I'm not that kind of person. It won't happen to me. I only sleep with a certain kind of person.' "

Solotar says parents can play a key role by talking candidly to their kids about avoiding risky sexual behavior.

"Handing them a booklet isn't going to do the trick," she says. "You want to raise their anxiety to the degree so that they're not terrified, but you want to raise it high enough so that when they want to engage in some kind of sexual activity, they'll at least stop and think about what they're doing and what would be some of the long-term effects."

Even absent symptoms, sexually transmitted diseases can cause long-term damage. Chlamydia, for example, is the most common bacterially transmitted STD in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating some 3 million cases in 2000.

Daley says 85 percent of females who get chlamydia have no symptoms, creating a "hidden epidemic" of a disease that can cause sterilization because of scarring in the fallopian tubes.

All her students know about HIV, Daley says. But few know much about the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which can cause cell changes that lead to cervical cancer; or hepatitis B, a potentially life-threatening viral liver disease that can be prevented by vaccination.

Education about STDs, to be effective, must begin earlier, Daley says. "We have to start talking to kids earlier than high school, or even middle school, if we expect them to have the knowledge and the skills to protect themselves in a very complicated, confusing culture that says that college students should be out there, being sexy, partying, having fun, taking risks," she says.

"We don't equip our kids to understand the consequences of certain actions, to say 'no' and not feel pressured, to delay first intercourse," she adds. By the time they head off to college, she says, "for many of them, it's already too late" to convey the message effectively enough to influence sexual decisions.

Indeed, the non-profit Campaign for Our Children, a Baltimore-based teen pregnancy-prevention organization, says boys and girls are starting to have sex as young as 12 years old. Many experts now believe that you could, in fact, talk about sex to your 6-year-old if you tailor the conversation to her age. And most all of them say it's critical to begin such talk before kids become sexually active.

Dr. Michael Durel, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology at the Ochsner Clinic in Baton Rouge, La., lays much of the blame for the risky sexual behavior on media and pop-culture messages: "If you're having fun, you got to have a beer in your hand and a babe in your arms; to have fun, you got to drink, you got to be sexually active."

Condoms offer some protection, Durel says. But, he adds, "the only truly safe sex is abstinence at the college level."

More information

For more on STDs, visit the National Institutes of Health. For tips on communicating with teens about sex, check out the Campaign for Our Children .

SOURCES: Ellen M. Daley, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor, University of South Florida School of Public Health, Tampa; Lauren Solotar, Ph.D., psychologist, assistant professor, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, and chief psychologist, vice president of clinical services, The May Institute Inc., Norwood, Mass.; Michael Durel, M.D., department of obstetrics & gynecology, Ochsner Clinic Foundation, Baton Rouge, La.; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, Md.; Society for Adolescent Medicine, Blue Springs, Miss.; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Campaign for Our Children Inc., Baltimore
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