Hookup culture is prominent in many colleges, and Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) is no exception. Friends whisper or boast to each other after Friday nights about their drunken frat paramours and Tinder hookups. Yik Yak, a smartphone social media application for anonymous posting, at WUSTL (or any college really) abounds with sexually frustrated students looking for casual sex.
Unfortunately, as sexual activity increases, so does incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also known as STDs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[n]early half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15-24 years,” which is centered around the years most people are in college. To gain more insight into what it is like to be diagnosed with an STI, I interviewed a student who had been diagnosed with chlamydia. The student requested to remain anonymous for this article.
Student Health Services at WashU offers testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B and C, herpes, HIV, HPV, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. Most STIs have a variety of symptoms, but most importantly, all of them can exhibit no symptoms at first, which is why it is crucial to get tested. The WUSTL student interviewed affirmed this, saying, “I wasn’t feeling any symptoms, but I thought I might get tested at SHS just to be safe. I had sex with a few people without a condom, and the condom broke with a couple others … I tested positive for chlamydia.” One of the biggest issues with STIs is that many people do not think that they will contract them, until they do. The interviewee called every person they had had sex with in the past 6 months to tell them that they had been diagnosed with chlamydia, yet said that “most of them seemed sure they didn’t have it. I guess they assumed I got it from someone else. But they didn’t realize that they could still have chlamydia without seeing any symptoms. I doubt all of them got tested, but I hope they did.”
Another issue many college students face is that they do not feel comfortable sharing their sexual activity with their parents and find themselves at an impasse when they are diagnosed with an STI. Some students have parents who grew up in more conservative times or with views on sexual liberation that disagree with the student’s views. With these differences in opinions or because of just plain awkwardness, it is difficult to be open with parents about sexual concerns and fears. In a survey done by New York University, “34 percent of teens say they’ve ‘never’ or ‘only once’ talked with their mom or dad about how to delay sex. Moreover, only small percentages of teens said they plan to discuss these and other sexuality-related topics with their parents in the future.” The student I interviewed sums it up by explaining, “I felt alone, unable to tell anyone. Normally when I’m sick I call my mom, but this time, I was on my own. My mom didn’t even know I was sexually active! How was I supposed to tell her I now had an STI?”
Many people often feel uncomfortable sharing that they have contracted an STI with anyone, not just parents. It goes beyond a simple desire for privacy, because there is often an element of shame associated with STIs. When asked if they thought there was a stigma against STIs, the person I interviewed thought that “people think that people with STIs are dirty and slutty.” This greatly discourages people from telling their past partners and even future partners about their STIs. When the person I interviewed was calling the people they had had intercourse with, they said “I tried to make it seem like it was no big deal, but the word ‘chlamydia’ really has some negative connotation. For most of the calls, I cried because I felt so embarrassed.” The view of people with STIs being unclean leads people with STIs to feel condemned and pressured to hide their condition. While the student I interviewed was brave enough to come clean, this stigma is a large factor in people neglecting to inform their partners about their STIs in order to avoid the humiliation, thereby exacerbating the spread of STIs.
The truth about STIs are that they are nothing to be ashamed of. Like my interviewee said, “It’s true, my sex life was nothing close to monogamous, but it really only takes having sex with that ONE person, that ONE condom breaking to transmit the infection.” STIs are simply infections that have no indication of the character of the person who contracts it. If we can become more understanding about the experience of contracting STIs, we can have more honest, safer, and healthier sex lives.