As I sat in the examination room, my heart rate increased and my head began to throb. My doctor knocked on the door and entered the room. I could feel my heart beating. He greeted me, “Hi Jake, how’s everything going?” and I tactfully responded, “I had sex and want to get tested” without hesitation. It’s not the easiest of conversations to have as a young adult, but I’m the type to rip the Band-Aid off. He laughed at my very direct response, and he walked me through a series of questions and administered a blood test. It was actually pretty simple.
Checking my email every thirty minutes for a week, I began experiencing anxiety with every passing hour. What are the chances that I have an sexually transmitted infection? The real answer was extremely low. How would people treat me? Probably the same way they have always treated me. How would I tell my parents? This was the scariest question of all. I hadn’t even mustered up the courage to tell my parents that I was getting tested. Upon receiving the test results, my worries became irrelevant. I tested negative. However, the unease I experienced is a common, shared side effect of getting tested for STIs.
Getting tested can be a far more harrowing experience than I detailed, and I was extremely fortunate to have tested negative. However, something I never considered in my process was looking for support from Boston College’s health resources. When I was deciding where to get tested, I compared University Health Services, Fenway Health, and my PCP at home. Almost immediately, I ruled out UHS. Why did I discard BC’s Health Services so quickly? Honestly, I would not have been comfortable dealing with questions of sexual health on campus.
The sexual health issues that have plagued our campus in recent history have focused on the provision of contraceptives. While contraception is an important method for preventing the spread of STIs, an even bigger issue is the lack of discussion about sexual health on campus in general. Sexual health is more than a condom or a pill. Currently, the CDC estimates that half of all new STIs occur among young people under the age of 25. Additionally, the Stanford University’s Sexual Health Peer Resource Center states that approximately 1 in 4 college students have an STI. At BC, not only is there a lack of conversation about STIs, there are also no strong preventative or proactive presences on our campus.
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.” Does sexual health at Boston College fulfill this definition? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
We lack a campus environment where we feel supported or encouraged to talk about sexual health generally, let alone our personal sexual health. Our college has made little progress in starting a discussion about sexual health and lacks a proper health support system.
We have Students for Sexual Health, whose mission is “to foster [sexual health] dialogue on campus, provide comprehensive information about sexual health, and engage with the health of the whole person—emotional, social, environmental, physical, spiritual, and mental—in order to empower students to make informed and healthy decisions,” but they can’t have events on campus and have endured administrative pushback since I was a freshman.
We have the Office of Health Promotion, whose health coaches are trained to give counseling on better and healthier practices, but they don’t advertise any forms of sexual health counseling or include sexual health in their programs.
We have the Women’s Center, which tackles the safety of sexual health through discussing sexual assault prevention, but the center is not able to openly discuss or promote sexual health as a whole. Boston College resources for sexual health are scarce at best and certainly not well promoted.
For the record, the University Health Services does offer STI testing on campus, even though it may not be readily or willingly advertised. UHS has pages dedicated to both HIV/AIDS and STI testing, but the completeness and relevance of the information is not as good as it could be. For STIs in general, UHS provides statistics and details some of the more serious symptoms, but the page lacks a comprehensive list of possible STIs, does not explain treatment of STIs, and fails to point out that many STIs are often asymptomatic.
The purpose of a health education site should be to provide the students with pertinent information on health risks in the student population, including prevention methods, in-depth descriptions of potential complications, and guidelines for healthier practices. Saying “abstinence is the best way to avoid an STI” and if “you have engaged in risky sexual behavior, you can obtain testing” is not enough. UHS can and should do better. As students, we should be disappointed with the disregard for proper dialogue and resources surrounding issues of sexual health.
In an ideal world, the stigma around sexual health would be erased. Realistically, Boston College is not going to drastically change by the time I graduate. The discomfort around sexual health will not disappear tomorrow. So, where do we go from here? First, we should welcome an open conversation about sexual health, not shy away from it. We must encourage regular STI screening and enhance our health system on campus,. We must educate students about the different risks they face. As my time at Boston College comes to a close, I hope that one day when I return to the campus as an alumnus, I can take pride in a university that truly promotes all forms of health for its students.