Despite the wealth of sexual information available in UCD, students often overlook sexual health. Sisi Rabenstein and Natalie Voorheis investigate the situation.

Sexual health awareness among students is something that comes under constant scrutiny. The alleged promiscuity of our generation is a cause for concern when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy. In an era when there seems to be extreme openness about sex, why is it that students seem so unaware of the potentially lethal implications of sexual misinformation?

Director of UCD’s Student Health Service, Dr Sandra Tighe and Students’ Union Welfare Officer, Conor Fingleton, spoke about the unawareness among students and the efforts being made to combat this ambivalence.

Dr Tighe likened the attitudes of UCD students concerning their sexual health to that of road safety issues in this country.

“There is kind of a theoretical knowledge but it’s not in your bones, as it were, it’s a little bit like not wearing seat-belts. [Students] know there is a risk but they don’t always translate it into ‘if I have sex now without a condom, am I risking pregnancy? Am I risking sexually transmitted infections?’”

Misconceptions concerning pregnancy, contraception and sexually transmitted infections are a source of worry for Dr Tighe, who encounters these myths on a daily basis.

Describing the most common of these, Dr Tighe explained, “People being ambivalent about the [contraceptive] pill, taking it but feeling that it puts on weight or it makes them moody and giving it up without really giving it a chance. They have this idea that it’s bad for them and they should take breaks. Everything has side effects but people are more afraid of the pill than is reasonable to be. People can be excessively afraid of the pill or have the idea that it causes all sorts of things, which it doesn’t.”

The widespread attitude concerning the pill is not one based on factual evidence provided by a GP but of distrust for the drug resulting in the neglect of a method of contraception which is, in fact, highly effective.
When asked if she was concerned at the amount of students who come in to her without even a basic understanding of what an STI is, Dr Tighe replied that lack of education seemed to manifest itself to a much greater degree in the male student body.

She also mentioned that young men tended to wait a considerable amount of time in which they think they have a STI before seeking help and that this attitude often has devastating affects for the man in question and his sexual partner or partners.

“Sometimes young men can be frightened for a long time before they come and speak to a doctor. Being too slow to come in about it, that’s a concern.”

On a positive note, Dr Tighe was impressed by the increase in students seeking out the testing services for chlamydia and gonorrhea since this time last year.

She noted that there has also been an increase in demand on the nurse-led contraceptive clinic but that the clinic was, at this time, unable to meet demand and a six-week waiting list was not uncommon. She seemed eager to implement a full-time nurse or doctor to run the contraceptive clinic but was not hopeful that this would actually occur, citing a lack of resources and funding as a primary factor holding the clinic back from meeting the needs of UCD’s student community.

“Sometimes young men can be frightened for a long time before they come and speak to a doctor. Being too slow to come in about it, that’s a concern”

Worryingly, many of the choices made by students relating to contraception are made under the influence of alcohol. “People may have all the knowledge [about contraception] but when you drink you’re not thinking straight and you don’t make good decisions. People may make decisions that they later on regret and that’s an issue that, through education, you need to help people make sensible decisions around alcohol.”

Equipping young people with knowledge concerning alcohol and sexual health before they enter third-level education is not a priority for the majority of secondary schools. This leads to frivolous attitudes concerning both issues and students forming opinions on the subject based on the actions of their peers.

Dr Tighe gave an example of this, “I’ll ask a woman how much she drinks and she’ll say that she is having eight vodkas at a time but her concept is that that’s not much because someone else is having twelve.”

Sexual health and alcohol awareness are issues that are intrinsically linked and have always been associated with university students. Until the lack of education in this area is resolved, implications of careless sexual behaviour are likely to be far-reaching for students in UCD.

SU Welfare Officer, Conor Fingleton is responsible for a multitude of issues affecting student health, be they physical or emotional and student sexual health and alcohol abuse.

Following the SHAG (Sexual Health Awareness & Guidance) campaign in 2005, work has been done to increase students’ knowledge of the issues surrounding sex, pregnancy and STIs.

Late September saw the introduction of a new condom initiative, to decrease the cost of condoms for students by encouraging all colleges to buy condoms in bulk. Currently a pack of 144 condoms is being sold for €10, meaning each condom costs almost a euro less than normal.

Regarding this initiative, Fingleton feels students are now at a big advantage, stating that “condoms in shops are very expensive… all the universities buy together, so it’s a significant saving”.

It is almost 30 years since contraception was legalised in Ireland, and since then condoms have become the most used type of contraception among young people due to their high success rate and ability to prevent many STIs, as well as pregnancy.

Consequently, many students are unaware of the mechanisms of other forms of contraception, such as the implant, the patch or the female condom. As regards to the contraceptive pill, there is no word on whether it will become another form of contraception to be subsidised by the SU, but it is doubtful, with Fingleton stating “that hasn’t been brought to my attention before… if there is a demand for it [though] I will definitely look through it.”

The benefits of other forms of contraception like the pill, implant or patch are on a more personal level. Women in steady relationships often choose the pill as they can have sex without worrying about pregnancy, however the contraceptive pill doesn’t protect against STIs.

To an even greater extent, the patch or implant allow a woman to forget completely about contraception until they need to be changed, which in the case of the patch is weekly and the implant every three years. However, none of these give any protection against STIs and must be used in conjunction with spermicide or a condom, with a new or unfamiliar partner.

The issue appears to be that people are more concerned with becoming pregnant than they are with contracting an STI and therefore, they rely on contraceptives alone as protection during sexual encounters.
Once contracted, STIs can be virulent and permanently damaging causing a wide range of problems such as infertility, and can prove to be fatal. The main problem with prevention however, is that many STIs produce no symptoms in women, meaning the virus could go unchecked until it’s too late.

The SU does offer subsidised STI screening at €40, but the question is do people avail of that option? The reasons they may not could list embarrassment, lack of information or even that they are unaware of the severity of the situation.

Believing that students are well aware of the screening service, Fingleton says the service is “hugely oversubscribed”. But with only ten student appointments a week, and personal hesitations, it is unlikely that a majority of students are seeking the check-ups so recommended to them.

The Student Perspective

9.30am; successive drivers and CAR format

“I think that my friends anyway, are very well educated about STIs, but they are not always sensible about it”

First year Law with French Law student, Bríd Doherty commented on the lack of knowledge about sexual health in UCD.

Doherty has noticed a huge difference in attitudes towards the issues of sexual health since entering university. “If you talk about sexual health in college with anyone, you don’t get the sly giggles in the corner, kind of thing.” Doherty attributes this openness to a more accepting attitude from the student body.

Doherty praised the SU and its provision of a free condom service, as keeping pace with the needs and attitudes of the student body. “It’s a necessary service and I think that it’s definitely an intelligent approach taken by the SU. It really does encourage safe sex because people will use a condom if they know they can get them for free.”

Doherty herself has felt the effects of the long waiting lists in the Student Health Service. For her, as for many UCD students, going to a private GP is simply not an option due to an already overextended student budget.

“It’s not acceptable, because as everyone knows students are impoverished and we can’t afford to spend €50 on a doctor. That’s why we have a doctor on campus and I think that it is a service that money should be pumped into because without doubt, your health is your wealth.”

Dr Tighe expressed the view that although students are educated about sexual health they do not always use this knowledge in a practical way in their daily lives.

Doherty comments “With my friends anyway, are very well educated about STIs but they are not always sensible about it. They say we’re all fools in love, but one of my friends in particular has a boyfriend who has had a lot of sexual partners in the past and he hasn’t been tested for STIs and she is currently sleeping with him without a condom all the time.”

“I would say there are many students out there who, worryingly, wouldn’t talk about it.”

First Year Engineering student, Sabrina Egan feels that communicating sexual health information is key to combating any confusion among students.

With now infamous rumours of promiscuity and the prevalence of STIs on the UCD campus, it’s no wonder that students may be uncomfortable with issues of sex and it’s consequences.

Egan stated, “having to ask someone else about something so personal is difficult. I would say there are many students out there who, worryingly, wouldn’t talk about it.”

This raises the issue that many students, rather than face the embarrassment of revealing their most personal issues to strangers would keep quiet, increasing their chances of severe health repercussions.
While the number of students affected by STIs or unplanned pregnancies in UCD can never be revealed, due to confidentiality rules, some still manage to spread scandalous stories, painting the UCD campus as a virulent hot bed of sexual indiscretions.

Calling these tales “ridiculous”, Egan goes on to say, “I think that definitely some people are promiscuous, behind closed doors, but that is those people’s business. We are all adults.”

The point being, that the age of consent in Ireland is 17 for a woman and has been since 1935, meaning that because the majority, if not all of students in UCD are 17 or over, their sexuality should be a matter of personal interest, not national.

An obvious consequence of the inability to discuss these issues freely, would be an increase in STIs and unplanned pregnancy. Egan said, “If everyone did a test, I think we would see that a lot of people don’t know what can happen when you catch an STI and I think that might mean they are less careful.”

The idea that students are prone to sexual health problems, is not a new one. With a population of 25,000, and an average age of around 20, a university campus, could be viewed as the ultimate place to find a partner or two.

However, it must be said that these 25,000 students have been accepted to UCD due to their intelligence and ambition, and to belittle their academic efforts in such a way as to title them all as sex maniacs, is unfair.

It may be true that on entrance to university a number of students discover their sexual freedom, but as consenting adults, they have every right to do so.

The issue that must be combated in this case, is not promiscuity, but the lack of informed decision making that faces students with the drive for sex, but perhaps not the information to make the right choices. As Egan said, “I think it’s up to the students to find out about these things, but it’s also up to the SU to make the information unmissable.”