How College Students Can Have Safer Sex This Semester

As some students return to campus, here are four ways to think about sexual health in the age of COVID-19.

[Photo: Volunteers separate condoms to give away during a free HIV testing event]
Making barrier methods more widely available can help to slow the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

For more sex education resources during the COVID-19 outbreak, check out our Better Sex Ed guide.

Over half of colleges and universities across the country are planning on fully remote or hybrid semesters this school year, leaving students who rely on their school’s free or low-cost sexual health services in a temporary health desert. Even at schools that plan to reopen for on-campus instruction, their health centers may be closed or operating at reduced capacity.

During a normal year, sexuality is one of the major health realms that get attention in higher ed (at least from campus wellness departments). But as a result of pandemic-induced budget cuts, many institutions have laid off or furloughed employees, straining already small health and wellness departments. Meanwhile, the burden of planning for COVID-19 safety may have fallen to health promotion staff, leaving them with little capacity for other health promotion work.

Attention is rightly focused on COVID-19, but sexual health is an essential part of that strategy.

COVID-19 has been found in fecal matter, which means anal play (especially analingus) is considered risky for COVID-19 transmission. Some recent studies have shown that the virus may also be present in semen, which raises further questions about whether it can be sexually transmitted. And, of course, sex generally involves heavy breathing, close contact, and saliva—all of which make transmission of COVID-19 easier.

Any type of partnered sex during the pandemic is risky. But while encouraging students to engage in solo sex rather than partnered sex is great, know that students are still going to be having partnered sex—and not just with longtime partners.

No level of social distancing guidelines or disciplinary measures will keep students from having sex—that isn’t realistic. So instead of going the abstinence-until-the-pandemic-is-over route, here are four practical ways educators can support student sexual health.

Stock up on barrier methods

If campus is reopening and you’re preparing for how you’ll distribute masks and hand sanitizer to your students, make barrier methods widely available, too.

Most college campuses usually have some number of free condoms (and, on occasion, dental dams) available to students. Stockpile a larger supply than you usually do and consider it a form of personal protective equipment.

If your health center is closed or operating at reduced capacity, sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing may be more difficult to access. By making barrier methods more widely available, you’re helping to slow the transmission of STIs, too.

Student leaders can apply for Advocates for Youth’s Condom Collective, and if accepted, they’ll be sent 500 condoms to distribute on campus. Staff members can purchase discounted external condoms, dental dams, and other sexual health products by signing up for a nonprofit account with a company like Global Protection Corp. (the maker of ONE Condoms).

Students and staff alike can also reach out to their local health department, HIV and AIDS advocacy organization, or Planned Parenthood affiliate for barrier methods.

If you typically make barrier methods available by leaving them in communal bowls so students can anonymously grab them, you’ll need to reconsider your methods. Some campuses offer free barrier method delivery to students’ mailboxes—check out CHOICE at Vassar for some inspiration.

Use programs strategically (and don’t be afraid to experiment)

Higher education professionals are well-prepared to host self-care programs—they likely already make up a significant part of the wellness calendar. During the pandemic, that can be expanded even further.

Students will be more isolated than usual, so set aside time to come up with strategic virtual or socially distant programming that can help ease loneliness, stress, and physical discomfort. Livestreamed fitness classes and workshops can give students a task to focus on that promotes pandemic safety as well as their physical and mental health.

Sexual health programming is one component of this. Solo sex is the least risky type of sex (both during the pandemic and in general) so consider virtual workshops that help destigmatize masturbation, emphasize effective communication, or—more broadly—teach students the sex ed they probably didn’t get in high school.

If you plan to distribute barrier methods, consider creating digital programs that can educate students on how to properly use them and what types of sex acts they can be used for. Students may not think about using a barrier method for oral sex most of the time, but health promotion campaigns can help them understand why they should consider it during the pandemic.

Remember that sexual health services are essential

Your institution might be paring back on “nonessential” student services to reduce the number of staff members on campus at one time. But remember, sexual health is an essential part of overall health.

Abortions and preventive care are both harder to access during the pandemic, so think about how your students’ sexual health concerns could be amplified as a result of COVID-19.

If your campus wellness center isn’t able to accommodate common sexual health appointments like STI testing or prescriptions for PrEP, birth control, emergency contraception, gender-affirming hormones, and STI treatments, you can make resources available to educate students on what other options are available to them.

Perhaps you book the mobile STI testing unit for twice as many visits as you normally do, so students can still get quick testing while not crowding together outside the bus (and so the testing staff can sanitize).

You could partner with a telehealth provider to complete appointments virtually. Or look toward telehealth sexual wellness services (like Nurx) to provide students with the services they need. If your campus is fully or mostly remote this semester, send your students information about where they can get free HIV and STI tests. You can even add the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing locator to your website.

Figure out where the gaps are and how you might be able to fill them. You won’t have the capacity to completely fill all of the gaps, but providing students with options and information is necessary.

Leave shame out of it

If you’re in a position where you’ll have to discipline students who aren’t abiding by the COVID-19 guidelines your campus has adopted, you’ll likely soon be feeling a lot of frustration. Most students are going to be following those guidelines to the best of their ability, but the reality is that not everyone will.

So take the sex ed approach: Shame doesn’t do anyone any good. Shaming someone for their behavior just makes them more likely to hide or lie about what they’re doing.

Being on campus during the pandemic is risky—that’s just the reality. Our pandemic precautions might reduce that potential risk (by limiting social gatherings, pushing classes online, and changing how common spaces operate), but ultimately, risk will still be there. So add in a harm reduction approach, too.

Instead of punishing the students you come across making out in the student union, have a conversation about role modeling and respecting their classmates’ comfort. Make sure they have access to the health services and barrier methods they need.

Leaving shame and judgment out of the equation can be uncomfortable for many people—especially when tensions are already high and patience may be running thin—but it’s one essential part of supporting sexual health and living during a pandemic.