Our contributor Abby Spector, who is majoring in Feminine/Gender/Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University, has a confession to make:
College students have a lot of sex. They are horny, hot and away from home. Add in a drop (or gallon) of alcohol and you get strangers pairing off by 8pm — or grouping off if they are feeling extra experimental. Some partners don’t know each other’s names. A few end up in relationships. But no matter the kind of hook-up, there is an attitude that prevails on my campus: “It can’t happen to me.” Where “it” is chlamydia or herpes or HIV or any number of other STIs you risk with unsafe sex.
My peers have seen the pictures of genital sores and they have raised money for AIDS research. By society’s standards, they are “well-educated.” So how can these so-called smart people be so stupid?
I used to think that everyone’s parents taught them to put condoms on bananas by age twelve. The sad truth is that I had a unique upbringing. People I go to school with, on the other hand, think that sexually transmitted diseases don’t exist within our community, as if the college bubble is impermeable to disease.
A couple months ago the campus was abuzz with talk about STIs. The results of our annual free testing day were misreported in our school newspaper: “3 out of 44 Students Test Positive for HIV” said the front page. I did the math. Three out of 44 is about 15 percent. Fifteen percent of 2800 people would be 180. I started frantically calling gynos for a last-minute check-up. Two hours after the paper hit the shelves it was revealed that the facts were wrong. There were no new HIV diagnoses. Even though the story was false, however, the dialogue and personal emotional breakdown it sparked were real.
I began investigating and promoting safety. Friends, boyfriends, roommates — everyone heard my schpiel on the importance of safer sex. The responses were astounding. “We don’t need condoms. Girls are on birth control here,” my hall-mate said. This guy — let’s call him John — is your stereotypical all-American boy: he came of age in elite private schools in Manhattan, his blond hair is always impeccably styled, and everything from grades to girls seems to come easily to him. By the end of spring semester, he had slept with 10 women — and half of them he’d had unprotected sex with.
I yelled. When I asked if he had ever been tested for HIV, he laughed. “Nobody has AIDS,” he said. All of those nobodies in Africa. All of those nobodies in inner-city clinics. Thirty-five million nobodies in the world. John had been tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea. When the doctor asked if he wanted an HIV test he shook his head. Nobody has AIDS. The doctor smiled. John left the office.
What about the viruses many people carry but show no symptoms for? Getting tested is an obvious move if you are suffering from a watermelon size sore on your anus. But what if you are clean and clear and appearing to be under control? Many people don’t get tested because their disease is asymptomatic. This is especially prevalent among men, who rarely get the signs of or problems related to subclinical HPV, but who give it to women that then end up with cervical dysplasia or, worse, cervical cancer.
It was around this time I learned that another friend — let’s call him Alex — had contracted genital herpes. For days he sat on his floor blowing a fan onto his crotch. He had been tested previously, but unsurprisingly a herpes test was not included in the free clinic testing package. Now his penis felt like it was on fire.
I called my boyfriend. He had been tested in the winter. I assumed this meant for everything — HIV included. It didn’t. He had been tested for Chlamydia, herpes (I insisted he get the blood test, which is definitely not standard), gonorrhea, genital warts, syphilis…a list that I would consider the whole kit-and-caboodle if it weren’t for the missing HIV screening. Like John, my boyfriend had turned down the HIV test, thinking it was pointless. Being the hypochondriac that I am, I scheduled a joint appointment for an HIV test that week. We drove to a dilapidated house in the corner of town. It was raining. Paul Simon was on the radio. We were silent. “Want to get tested together?” a woman in Earth-tone pants asked. We nodded. Let the games begin.
Our tests came back negative. I relaxed and we had celebratory, condom-less sex (in addition to being screened for everything, I’ve also had the HPV shot). When I got back to my dorm room, I taped the paper saying that I was HIV-free on the door, a subtle gesture to motivate my peers to take the test. Worrying incessantly about HIV isn’t worth it. Not worrying is, well, stupid. So find a nice middle-ground. Get tested. It’s worth it.