Whether they’re sexually active or not, students still tend to get most of their sex-related information from friends or online sites that can frequently be misleading or unreliable, says public health educator Sophie Godley.
In an effort to provide students with more accurate information about sex, BU Student Health Services (SHS) Wellness and Prevention Services is launching a sexual health initiative this semester. Part of that initiative is a live Q&A with a group of campus “sexperts,” including Godley (SPH’15), a School of Public Health clinical assistant professor of community health sciences, tonight at the Photonics Center.
“We decided to focus on sexual health because it plays a key role in students’ overall physical and emotional well-being,” says SHS wellness coordinator Katharine Mooney (SPH’12). The initiative seeks to help students gain accurate sexual knowledge, confidence, and realistic expectations, since the need for safer sex information has never been greater or more urgent—an estimated 6.7 percent of the approximately one million Americans infected by HIV are under 24, and more than half of these are unaware of their infection, according to a report released last year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The message of the initiative, which includes a blog and a condom giveaway program, is being delivered with a healthy dose of humor. The Q&A sexpert panel will be held in the dark “to make students more comfortable,” but there will also be “fun glow-in-the-dark giveaways such as necklaces and condoms,” says Mooney. And anyone who rides the BUS (BU Shuttle) is likely to have seen at least one of a series of impish posters for the “Condom Fairy” program, which allows students to order free male and female condoms, delivered anonymously by snail mail to on-campus addresses. As of last week, about 500 students had requested the items, comprising Trojan male condoms, FC2 female condoms, personal lubricant packets, and Sheer Glyde dams. Students can order up to three male condoms, two female condoms, three personal lubricant packets, and two Sheer Glyde dams.
In her teaching at BU, Godley says, she sees “a really smart, really engaged population of students who care a lot about each other and their futures. So there’s a great opportunity to create general equality and see human sexuality as normal.”
Godley and clinicians at Student Health Services share some concerns, however. In the wake of the findings about student hockey players’ sexual misconduct by a BU special task force last year, it’s clear that “we need to be in more open communication about the meaning of consent and gender roles,” she says. Another big concern is the role alcohol can play in sexual activity, and the often misguided expectations about sex that result when young people watch online pornography. “We know that students’ first exposure to sex is viewing online porn when they ask questions like, ‘Why do adults all shave their pubic hair?’” says Godley. Very little mass-produced pornography shows people in authentic couple situations, she says. “People don’t actually hold each other—the only thing that’s linked are their genitals.” When all that young people see is “amped-up porn sex, they come to their first experience with totally unrealistic expectations.” She points to a number of online sites that provide good, frank sex information online for college-age men and women. Her favorite, she says, is Columbia University’s Go Ask Alice.
One way the initiative hopes to dispel sex-related misconceptions is through a new Ask the Sexpert blog. Like Go Ask Alice, the blog “is an opportunity to get questions answered in a nonjudgmental, open, and confidential environment that makes it easy for students to be sex-positive and stay healthy,” says Godley, who along with Teri Aronowitz, a School of Medicine assistant professor and an SHS nurse practitioner, who did postdoctoral work at the Kinsey Institute, responds to students’ online questions. In a recent query, a student asks whether his new girlfriend should be tested for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) even though she hasn’t had sex for a year and “doesn’t have any symptoms.” In her response Godley urges both partners to get tested for their peace of mind and as a step toward “taking the new relationship seriously enough to watch out for each other’s health.” In an addendum to the response, SHS director David McBride advises that even if both partners are “clean,” it’s wise to use condoms to protect transmission of human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, which often have no symptoms and may not be detectable in tests.
The blog is also featuring a “Safe-Hot-Sex Goodie Bag,” with a winner selected on March 15 from those who share or tag the blog on Facebook or Twitter and leave a comment or a post.
Godley will be joined on tonight’s Q&A panel by Aronowitz and Mark Weber, a Student Health Services senior staff physician.
The live Q&A, Sex in the Dark: A Glow in the Dark Sexpert Panel, is at 7 p.m. tonight, Wednesday, February 27, at the Photonics Center, 8 St. Mary’s St., Room 206. The event is open to students, faculty, and staff. More information is available here or by calling 617-358-0485.