by Kimberly Lee
As freshers week has come to an end, many of you will have been introduced to the colourful culture that university life brings. It has been known that freshers week presents itself as an opportunity for many students to explore sex through new adventures. But one thing you probably were not expecting was the number of freshers who contracted an STI in their first year at university – Fresh Student Living has reported that 25% of first years admitted to catching one. That is one in every four freshers.
Although she had sex without condoms before, for the most part, 19-year-old Alison* was careful. She carried condoms for every casual encounter and made sure that she got tested after every time she had unprotected sex. “I felt like I had everything under control, until last year.” That was when Alison, then a first-year student, was diagnosed with chlamydia.
Alison cried at her positive STI test results, beating herself up over not having regularly practiced safe sex. “I was so annoyed and frustrated at myself. I felt so disgusted at that moment as I never thought that someone like me would get something nasty like chlamydia.” It did not help when she found out from a mutual friend that the guy who gave it to her had apparently been complaining about STI symptoms before the night of their sexual encounter. “He knew that he had it but he still went ahead to take the condom off halfway through.” (Alison would like to note that she consented to this).
After her diagnosis, Alison decided that she wanted to start talking about her experience with her friends. “It turns out that many of them had it too but no one was talking openly about it. No one wants to talk about it because of the harmful stigma surrounding STIs.” Some of her stress was eased away when she learned of the fairly easy treatment. Even with something like chlamydia, Alison explained that, without the socialised stigma surrounding it, the disease is a lot less terrifying than it really sounds. “I’m not trying to minimise the implications of chlamydia, but one course of antibiotics is all it takes for it to all go away.”
Since her wake-up call with getting STI, Alison has taken on a new mission in life. “It is time for us to stop being embarrassed about talking about our sexual health. We need to take charge of it and break down the stigma surrounding STIs.”
With that, it may be time for you to take responsibility for your own sexual health and that of your partners and start to inquire about some sexual health services that are available for you on campus.
Let’s start off with what our university provides. Sussex has its own on-campus GP – University of Sussex Health Centre. It offers everything that any other GP would, often with a focus on STI testing, and with a discreet and easily accessible service that will go a long way to help avoid any embarrassment. The GP can also help with family planning, if needed. New students, remember to register with your GP as soon as you can and before you need any treatment.
You also have the option of signing up for a University of Sussex X-Card. You will be able to get free condoms, vaginal condoms, and lube right on campus. This scheme just provides a fair way of distributing condoms and other sexual health resources, as well as answering your sexual health queries, and signposting to other specialist services. Come to a drop-in and register for an X-Card at the Student Life Centre on Wednesdays and Thursdays (1-2pm), and at the Student Wellbeing Office on Fridays (1-2pm). Drop-ins are free, confidential, and run by trained student volunteers.
Sussex even has its own student-led campaign to promote education to students on sexual and emotional well-being on campus. Under the Sheets (@sussexunderthesheets) aims to focus on the subsections of health and safety in regard to sexual health and relationships. This will include conversations surrounding sex work, safe sex, and how to spot red flags in relationships. Although a large portion of the campaign is focused on sex, there is still a need to support those who choose to remain abstinent from having sexual relations – this can be due to one’s sexuality, faith, or health needs. It is an all-inclusive space to promote sex positivity, sexual health and safety, and emotionally healthy relationships.
Sometimes you might need or want to look at further options other than your campus for help. There are many sexual health services in the community which you can seek out by yourself, or in some cases, referred to by your on-campus GP. You can use the NHS website to check what is available near you and this search will tell you more about the available NHS clinics and the various pharmacies where you can get emergency contraception or free contraception. A quick Google search can be good too, as many boroughs will have a website for their sexual health services. You will be able to find drop-in clinics, HIV services, counselling, services for under 25s, and LGBTQ+ provisions. All of these services are confidential (as university services should be) and completely free to access as long as you are registered with NHS – make sure you have done this if you’re an international student.
Taking care of your sexual health is a key part of safer sex, and an important part of having safer sex is taking joint responsibility for sexual health and contraception. That being said, if you do find yourself with an STI, do not think of it as a punishment and let it ruin you. You can do something about it. It is actually sexy when people take charge of their sexual health.
*Name has been changed