It’s likely that the social scene you encounter in graduate school will be a change of pace from the parties, hookup culture, and social pressure of undergraduate life, but your sexual health does not get a free pass!
Even if the culture feels less risky than the undergraduate daze, there are still strategies that can help you avoid the burden and risks of sexual health complications during graduate school.
University resources are often geared toward traditional-age undergraduate students, due to their larger campus presence and younger age. Many of them just finished high school and need help transitioning to greater independence. (Think back to when you were a frosh.)
It’s different in graduate school. You’re not crammed into a hyper-social first-year living pod. Since graduate students more frequently live off campus and are not as involved in student life, they might not be as connected to resources in offices of student life or the health center. And because graduate students are more diverse in terms of age and at different stages in their career, their challenges and needs are accordingly diverse.
So while most universities provide graduate students with all available resources, some schools encourage students to make use of sexual health resources in the community. Organizations like Planned Parenthood and community and public health clinics provide STD and STI testing and access to condoms and birth control for free or at low cost. Community clinics may be better able to provide convenient, affordable, and appropriate resources to support the sexual health of graduate students.
An institution like University of Pennsylvania, according to Megan Whitman, a graduate student and staff member at the LGBT Center, proactively provides students with information about community health centers to supplement university resources.
What’s the cheapest and most effective way of avoiding STDs during graduate school? Well, other than not having sex at all, the answer is condoms. Many university health centers and community health clinics provide condoms for free. Condoms protect against not only unplanned pregnancy, but also the most common STDs, like human papillomavirus (HPV), gonorrhea, and chlamydia, as well as HIV. (It is absolutely essential to wear only one condom at a time, because if two rub against each other, they could tear.)
While condoms are effective and inexpensive, they do not entirely guarantee protection from STDs or unplanned pregnancy. If you or your partner is experiencing an outbreak of genital herpes, a condom will only protect the spread of herpes in the area that it covers. In addition to condoms, women can protect themselves by using a second form of protection like the birth control pill, an IUD, or a NuvaRing.
As Cristi O’Connor, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University and staff member at the Baltimore City Health Department STD Clinics, pointed out, the only way to protect yourself completely against STDs and unplanned pregnancy is abstinence. And if you prefer to have sex without a condom, it is especially important to be fully aware of each other’s sexual health and history and to agree on what is healthiest and safest. Getting tested together and communicating about the results is the only way to know for sure whether you are carrying an STD, since the majority of STDs are asymptomatic.
For all students, an important tool to maintain sexual health is honest communication with any potential partners. That includes openness about STDs, other sexual partners, and methods of protection and birth control. It’s never too late to ask about each other’s preferences, needs, insecurities, desires, and feelings about sex. That may include a preference for using a condom (or not), expressing whether you are ready to have sex, confiding in your partner about a diagnosed STD or a fear that you might have one, or suggesting a new position.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students face a particular set of challenges as graduate students, primarily due to their smaller numbers and historical marginalization. While many universities provide resources tailored to LGBT students, they might come to rely more so than other students on resources outside of the university. It really depends on the school; at some schools, student centers provide extensive support to the LGBT community, and at other schools, such resources do not exist or do not enjoy institutional support.
Graduate students, just like all students, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, sex, race, or any other factor, will need to advocate for their own needs and resources during their time in school. While the university health center might be geared primarily toward undergraduates, many resources will be relevant to graduate students. Free condoms come to mind. Even if the sexual health resource center is a bit out of the way, early on in your graduate career (before things get too crazy) is a good time to locate these important resources at your university. That way, if you’re ever concerned or in need, you will know where to go.
Genital herpes - cdc fact sheet. (2014, March 20). Retrieved from CDC.
O’Connor, C. (2014, April 08). Interview by Leo Brown [Audio Tape Recording].
Sexually transmitted infections. (2009, August 12). Retrieved from Columbia University.
Whitman, M. (2014, April 03). Interview by Leo Brown [Audio Tape Recording].