You’re probably interested in sex, but how much do you really know about it?
We attend a university of some of the most intelligent people in the region and obviously enjoy unprecedented access to information. But, judging by the popularity of the Herald’s weekly Hump Day columns and the often misinformed comment debates that ensue, many students don’t know as much about sexual health as they would like.
This is what The Badger Herald is attempting to address. We sent a link to a comprehensive sexual health survey to the 38,812 students for whom we could obtain e-mail addresses. Each student was assigned a unique code to maintain integrity. We put up $250 and four Deadmau5 concert tickets as an incentive. And for that we received 3,190 valid responses.
Of those, more than 400 people wrote comments totaling 16,000 words. Many of these comments expressed an intense interest in many aspects of sex. The critiques of the survey were thoughtful and detailed. Clearly people care about sex and yearn to learn more about it.
Probably the biggest sexual unknown that pertains to every participant is the realm of sexually transmitted infections. Most guys probably know how to use their penises (debatable, ladies?), and not having one myself, I wouldn’t imagine vagina possessors have much difficulty using them when they choose to. But how many of you know what the most common STI is and how likely you are to get infected if you have sex?
How much do STIs matter?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s look at the big picture. Many people find sex to be enjoyable, though only 81 percent of respondents said they have had oral sex, and 74 percent said they have had penetrative sex. So ‘everyone’ is not having sex. Of those who are, some do it casually, and some do it to express love for their partners. Some do it to procreate, among other interests.
If you are sexually active, you need to take possible infection into consideration. Not just out of concern for your own health, but for each of your partners’ as well. You’re not even exempt if you’re in a monogamous relationship. About 16 percent of respondents said they had sex with someone other than their partner during an exclusive relationship. The reasons for this can be complicated, but there is no denying it’s best to learn as much as you can about sexually transmitted infections so you can take sensible precautions.
While many infections can have relatively minor long term effects on your health, others are much more worrisome. According to University Health Services epidemiologist Craig Roberts, chlamydia is the second most commonly seen STI at the clinic. Chlamydia can cause infertility in women. And while rarer, STIs such as syphilis and human immunodeficiency virus are too serious to ignore.
So what’s the solution? What if you get an STI, especially an incurable one? This issue is tough, and it needs to be discussed much more than it has been.
Am I infected?
The greatest problem is probably awareness.
“Since most STDs are asymptomatic, the numbers of diagnosed cases represent only the tip of the iceberg,” Roberts said in an interview with The Badger Herald.
For example, Roberts said human papillomavirus, which is the most common STI and causes warts, is so common “most experts consider infection to be inevitable.” Yet only 10 percent of people infected develop symptoms that lead to a diagnosis. There is now a vaccine to prevent some strains of HPV, as well.
“Everyone under 27 should get the HPV vaccine,” said Roberts.
Similarly, herpes simplex virus, the pesky microbe that causes cold sores and genital herpes, can be spread even when there are no noticeable outbreaks, which is most of the time.
The lesson? The only way to know if you are infected is to get tested. And UW students as a group, despite free testing available at UHS and elsewhere, are not being responsible enough to do so.
Even considering the chunk of students who do not have sex, about 60 percent of respondents said they’ve never been tested for HIV. The test is quick and confidential, and there are even non-blood tests available. Screening for the other, common STIs is even easier and can be taken care of with a 20 minute appointment. Only with complete knowledge can you make smart decisions. If you have had sex or might have sex, just get tested.
OK, I have an STI. Now what?
Of the students who admitted to having herpes, only about a quarter said they always informed sex partners. That’s a quarter of the 10 percent of herpes-infected students who actually know they are infected.
Obviously there are a couple of problems here. Even if you all get smart and get tested, you’re not going to do much to prevent the spread of infection by keeping it a secret, even from your sex partners.
If you test positive for chlamydia, the second most commonly seen STI at UHS, or the rarer gonorrhea or syphilis, typically you can clear up the infection by taking an antibiotic. The earlier you get treated the better, which is another reason to get tested. You could therefore abstain till you are no longer contagious, a judgment you can discuss with your clinician.
If, however, you have herpes, HPV or HIV, there will always be a chance you could spread the infection, as no cures yet exist. Treatments are available for all three, and your doctor can help you understand the potential benefits of treatment in your particular situation.
Only after you know your status and have discussed treatment options with your doctor can you make intelligent decisions to minimize risk as much as possible.
This leads to the flip side of the communication problem: Understanding.
If you have sex for fun and nothing more, then maybe you won’t want to deal with someone who has an STI. As long as you are respectful and realize that person almost certainly did not try to get infected, that’s OK. Or maybe you will simply take extra precautions to be safe, such as using condoms or forgoing oral sex. STIs need not mean a decision between abstinence and dishonesty.
If sex for you is just part of a friendship that means something more, then you have even more reason to be open and understanding. While STIs are certainly inconvenient, one must take a step back and examine the essence of relationships. There is more to a relationship than sex, and if you and your partner care about each other enough, you might decide the added risk is worth the benefits.
Charlie is a fifth year biochemistry student. You can contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @CNG. To learn how to get screened for STIs at UHS at no cost beyond your tuition, visit http://uhs.wisc.edu. Be on the look-out tomorrow for even more results from the survey!