It could be argued that the time we spend in university makes up our formative years, filled with soul-searching, mild identity crisis (yes, admit it, you’ve had one too!), and—thankfully more pleasant than the aforementioned—sexual exploration. But what beliefs actually govern the relationships and sexual behaviours of today’s young adults? Are these beliefs based on the fictional fodder of Hollywood rom-coms, or are they based on actual facts? And what is the resulting impact of 18-to-24-year-olds’ knowledge about sex—or lack thereof—on their overall health and well-being?
Trojan Condoms, in collaboration with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) recently surveyed 1,500 university students across Canada on just this topic. While the study reveals that students do take their sexual health to heart, and report having pleasurable sex, it also brings to light disconcerting sexual behaviors, for which lack of education about sex health is partly to blame. Below, we debunk three common sexual myths that circulate on campuses (and beyond), and finally set the record straight. C’mon, let’s talk about sex, shall we?
Myth #1: HIV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in Canada.
Fact: HPV (or Human papillomavirus) not HIV, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in Canada, followed by genital herpes. Yet, as the study suggests, young people aren’t aware of that fact, with 56% of students surveyed learning about this troubling statistic for the first time. While most, if not all, sexually active individuals have, or will contract HPV at one point or another during the course of their lives, in most cases, the infection goes away on its own, with infected parties unaware that they even had it. That said, certain strains of HPV can lead to cervical cancer, hence the importance of practicing safe sex.
“Rates of sexually transmitted infection are high in the young adult age group, so the results of this study clearly show that there remains much work to do in terms of encouraging young people to better protect themselves against not only unwanted pregnancy, but especially STIs,” says Alex McKay, Ph.D. and Research Coordinator at SIECCAN.
Conclusion: Given that a number of STIs are asymptomatic—clinics only test for HIV and chlamydia (unless you ask to be tested for common sexual transmitted STIs, and pay for the service)—and a test is only good for that moment in time, using a condom every time you have sex—from start to finish—greatly reduces the risk of contracting an STI.
Myth #2: Sex with a condom diminishes sexual pleasure.
Fact: The Trojan/SIECCAN Sexual Health Study found that sexual pleasure for both males and females in different types of relationships, with the exception of females in “committed dating” relationships, was not significantly different between those who used a condom and those who did not. In other words, condoms do not lessen pleasure.
“Some young people have the idea that using condoms will reduce sexual pleasure,” says Robin Milhausen, Ph.D. and Associate Professor at the University of Guelph, who helped analyze data from the study. “Condom use can be sexy. It doesn’t disrupt sexual pleasure, and shows respect for your partner.” Sadly, the study reveals that just over half (51%) of students used condoms the last time they had sex, which means that condom use is lower than the experts hoped among the 18-to-24-year-old demographic. That being said, only 10% reported not using any protection, which lays to rest another common misconception: that young people don’t protect themselves at all.
Conclusion: “It is critical that sexual education highlight the ways in which condom use can be sexy, pleasurable and fun,” says Milhausen.
Myth #3: Casual sex increases the risk of contracting an STI.
Fact: Contrary to popular belief, serial monogamy, not casual sex, accounts for the highest rates of STIs among young people, the study suggests. As Milhausen aptly puts it, “love, trust, and intimacy is the death blow for condom use.” How so? Two young people who are in love and committed feel that they no longer need to use condoms, but these same young people are more likely to protect themselves—even when drugs and alcohol are involved—when having casual sex with someone they do not know very well.
“The risk happens with people who you know pretty well and whom you care about,” says Milhausen. Among the negative consequences of unprotected sex among serial monogamists is undiagnosed chlamydia, one of the most common sexually transmitted STIs, and one of the leading causes of infertility in women.
While the study found that students use condoms primarily as a form of birth control rather than to prevent STIs, the experts behind it suggests additional reasons for this increase in unprotected sex among young people in committed relationships. The high rates of asymptomatic chlamydia and gonorrhea, safer sex fatigue (becoming more lax about safe sex if you’ve been sexually active for a number of years and have not experienced any negative consequences), and the government focus on HIV education/prevention—the height of which was during the ‘80s and ’90s—shifting to more at-risk groups, namely men who have sex with men, and drug users, which inadvertently left educational efforts about other STIs to fall by the wayside. As McKay explains, “a series of STIs (HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and genital herpes) are many times more common, particularly in the 18-to-24-year-old population than HIV ever was, yet some people haven’t even heard about the most common STIs.”
Conclusion: While students do know that condoms are highly effective at preventing an unplanned pregnancy, and use them as such, they also need to be aware that HIV and other STIs remain a serious health concern, and subsequently, they should remember to use condoms to reduce the risk of STIs as well, particularly for those in committed relationships. Getting you and your partner tested regularly, and using dual protection (birth control and the condom as a form of protection against STIs), are of paramount importance, especially given that, explains McKay, most students will have several serious, committed relationships throughout their college years.
While the Trojan/SIECCAN Sexual Health study does reveal some troublesome facts regarding students’ lack of knowledge about sex health, the onus to fill the knowledge gap shouldn’t rest solely on the government, schools and health care practitioners. Candidly talking to kids about sex, and encouraging young people, particularly young women, to take their sexual health into their own hands (purchasing condoms for themselves, and negotiating condom use with their partners), are just some of the ways to ensure 18-to-24-year-olds protect—and enhance—their sexual and reproductive health.