Students enter college with diverse sexual experiences. Some might have already been in long-term relationships during which they had ample time to learn about practicing safe sex. Other college students have had very few or no sexual encounters. Regardless of their experiences, everyone should have access to safe sex tips for college students.
It’s perfectly normal for people to enter college as virgins. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 17.3 is the mean age for a woman to have intercourse for the first time. For men, it’s slightly lower at 17 years old. These numbers have remained consistent for more than a decade.
That means plenty of college students need to learn about safe sex so they can learn about themselves and others while minimizing risk. It’s been said that there’s no such thing as safe sex. Safer sex, however, is certainly a worthwhile goal.
The following safe sex tips for college students will help you minimize risk and enjoy your time in school.
Don’t Assume You Know Everything About Safe Sex
The average student receives some level of sex education before graduating from high school. Not everyone does, though. About 18.5 percent of males and 16.3 percent of females report not learning sex education before graduating from high school. Many of them might think they know safe sex tips for college students. That doesn’t mean they have accurate information.
Sex Education Varies Among Schools
It’s also important to consider that “sex education” can differ radically from school to school. While some safer sex programs are taught from a scientific perspective, others take an “abstinence-only” approach. Additionally, some programs only cover topics that apply to heterosexual couples. Anyone outside that narrow window might not get the education they need to practice safe sex.
The Safest Choice May Not be Realistic
While it’s true that complete sexual abstinence is the safest choice, it’s also an unrealistic goal. Most college students want to experience sex and enter sexual relationships.
These safe sex tips for college students can help you make informed decisions. If you have any doubt – no matter how small – about the right way to practice safe sex, reach out to your college or university’s health department to meet with a professional. A doctor, nurse, or other health practitioner can provide accurate information that helps you stay safe.
Understand the Signs of Sexually Transmitted Infections
One of the most beneficial safe sex tips for college students involves learning the symptoms of common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. When you understand what signs to look for, you’ll know when to get tested and treated.
Signs and Symptoms of STIs
Chlamydia symptoms often differ between men and women.
Symptoms for women include:
- Uncommon vaginal discharge (often with an unpleasant smell)
- Frequent urination
- Painful urination
- Pain during intercourse
- Genital itching and burning
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Bleeding between periods
- Pus in urine
Symptoms for men include:
- Discharge from the penis that may look clear or like mucus
- Painful urination
- Painful sores or blisters on the genitals
- Itchy, burning genitals
- Painful urination
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Flu-like symptoms (e.g., fatigue, fever, chills, aches, and pains)
- Small lumps around the genitals or anus
- Burning sensation on or around the genitals
- Itching or irritation
- Mild bleeding from sores
Gonorrhea (“The Clap”)
Symptoms can differ slightly between men and women.
Women may experience:
- Uncommon vaginal discharge
- Pain during urination
- Bleeding between periods
- Throat pain (when the infection affects the throat after oral sex)
- Pain in the pelvis or lower abdomen
Men may experience:
- Uncommon discharge from the penis
- Pain during urination
- Throat pain (when the infection affects the throat after oral sex)
- Discolored (often brown) urine
- Jaundice (yellow skin or eyes)
- Diarrhea or loose stools
- Stomach pain
- Achy joints and muscles
- Lethargy (lack of energy)
- Flu-like symptoms
- Decreased immune system response
- Frequent illness
Although a specific type of HPV can cause genital warts, HPV rarely produces immediate symptoms. As a result, people can have the infection for years before learning about their condition. According to the CDC, HPV increases the risk of cervical cancer in women. About 19,400 women per year in the U.S. get cancer from HPV. More than 12,000 men experience HPV-related cancer every year. Safe sex for college students includes the need to realize that HPV and other STIs can have long-term consequences.
- Vaginal discharge (white, yellow, or green) with a foul odor
- White discharge from the penis
- Painful urination
- Painful intercourse
- Itchy or irritated genitals
Get Tested Regularly for STIs
Following safe sex tips for college students lowers your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection. Safe sex, however, cannot eliminate the possibility that you’ll get an STI. Only complete sexual abstinence can ensure that.
Regular testing is the most effective way to determine whether you have an STI. Knowing your status will also help you stop the spread. Once you know that you have an STI that you could spread to a partner, you can stop all sexual activity until you recover or take additional precautions that lower the risk even more.
How Often to Get Tested for STIs
How often should you get tested? Safe sex tips for college students can vary slightly depending on their sexual activities.
The following guide should help you decide how often to get tested.
- Annually – All sexually active people should get tested at least once per year. Make it a part of your annual health exam. Get tested annually, even if you’re in a monogamous relationship. It’s always possible that your partner will have sexual contact with someone without telling you. By getting tested at least once per year, you can catch and start treating STIs as soon as possible.
- Every 3-6 Months – If you’re sexually active but not in a monogamous relationship, consider getting tested every three to six months. Use some common sense to decide how often you need tests. A person who has sex with two people over a year probably only needs to get tested twice per year. Someone who has casual sex with multiple partners should get tested more often.
- Immediately – If you show any symptoms of an STI, get tested immediately regardless of when you last had sex.
- After Unprotected Sex – Finally, you should get tested for STIs after engaging in unprotected sex. That includes times when you aren’t sure whether you used a condom properly and when a condom tears during sex. If you have any suspicion, get tested before having any type of sex with another person.
Talk to sexual partners about their status before you engage in any type of sex. Still, remember that not all people follow safe sex tips for college students. Even more alarmingly, not everyone tells the truth about their status. Always take precautions regardless of what a partner tells you.
Where to Get Tested for STIs
Your college or university’s student health center probably performs STI screenings and tests. You probably will not need to pay anything for the tests. If you do, the costs are minimal. After all, the institution wants to prevent STIs from spreading among students. Paying for STI screenings and tests is an inexpensive way for them to reach that goal.
- Visiting Planned Parenthood
- Scheduling an appointment with your doctor or nurse
- Going to an urgent care center
- Contacting a healthcare practitioner online to get advice about whether you need testing
- Ordering home STI tests
Keep in mind that trustworthy STI tests can cost anywhere from $50 to $250 or more. Cheaper tests usually check for one specific infection. More expensive tests usually check for several types of conditions.
Get Vaccinated Against Certain STIs
While some infections can be cured with medications and others remain in your system indefinitely, there are a few that can be prevented with vaccines. Currently, young people can get vaccinated against three STIs:
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
You might be surprised to learn that HPV is the most common STI. The CDC estimates that about 48 million Americans have HPV. Many people never show symptoms and don’t take precautions when having sex. You can also get HPV through skin-to-skin contact, so the virus can spread even when you don’t have penetrative sex.
Vaccines are available to make your sex life safer. Take advantage of them.
Know How to Use Condoms
What’s one of the most important safe sex tips for college students? Use condoms! Using condoms (also called prophylactics) correctly during every sexual encounter significantly lowers the risk of infection and pregnancy. Latex condoms work best. If you or your partner have a latex allergy, you might need to use condoms made from other materials. Just realize that this increases the risk of infection and pregnancy.
Follow these steps to use condoms correctly:
- Open the package and place the condom on the tip of the penis.
- Hold the tip of the condom with fingers on one hand while rolling it down the shaft of the penis with the other hand.
- If the condom doesn’t have a reservoir tip, leave about half an inch of space at the tip to collect semen.
- Apply a spermicidal lubricant to reduce friction that could tear the condom. (Don’t use a petroleum-based lubricant. They can damage latex, putting you at a higher risk.)
- After ejaculation, hold the condom’s rim and withdraw the penis.
- Use a tissue to remove the condom.
- Throw away the condom in a place where it won’t come into contact with anyone.
Common Questions About Condoms
Are external (male) condoms and internal (female) condoms equally effective?
Both types of condoms offer significant protection from STIs and pregnancy. Lab tests show that external condoms are slightly more effective, but only by a few percentage points. External condoms are about 98 percent effective in an ideal setting. Internal condoms are about 95 percent effective in laboratory tests. However, the effectiveness of internal condoms falls to about 79 percent in real-world situations.
Is it safer to use external and internal condoms simultaneously during sex?
No. In fact, you shouldn’t use external and internal condoms at the same time. Prophylactics are designed for independent use. Putting them together makes them much less effective.
What should I do if a condom breaks during sex?
Condoms rarely break or tear, but it does happen. If you notice that your condom breaks, stop all sexual activity immediately. Remove the penis and replace the damaged condom with a new one. It’s a good idea to get an STI test soon to determine whether you were exposed to a sexually transmitted infection. Women might also want to see their pharmacist about a levonorgestrel pill (commonly known as “Plan B”).
The sooner you take the pill, the more effective it is. It can potentially prevent pregnancy up to three days after intercourse, but it’s better to take this type of birth control as soon as possible. When safe sex tips for college students fail, always have a backup plan.
Should I use a condom during oral sex?
Unlubricated and flavored condoms are good options when performing fellatio. During cunnilingus or anilingus, you should use a dental dam that creates a barrier between the orifice and mouth.
If you don’t have a dental dam, you can make one from a condom. Use clean scissors to cut off the tip and bottom of an unrolled condom. Then, make a cut down the side of the condom to create a rectangular sheet of latex that can cover the vaginal opening or anus.
Don’t have a condom available? Saran plastic wrap isn’t as effective as a latex prophylactic, but the barrier it creates does offer some protection.
Condoms Don’t Protect You From All STIs
When used correctly and consistently, condoms can help protect you from most STIs transmitted through bodily fluids. However, they don’t offer protection from STIs that get transferred by skin-to-skin contact.
STIs spread skin-to-skin include:
- HPV/genital warts
To be clear, using a condom can lower the risk of transmitting most viruses, including those spread through skin-to-skin contact. However, this type of protection is often less effective at preventing the spread of infections transmitted through bodily fluids.
Know Where to Get Reliable Condoms for Free
College students don’t always have extra money to spend. Sexually active students should consider buying condoms an essential expense. Unfortunately, people don’t always make that choice when they’re worried about whether they have enough money to pay for food and rent.
Luckily, most colleges make it easy for students to access reliable condoms for free. If you don’t already know where to get free condoms on campus:
- Talk to your dorm’s resident advisor
- Contact your Student Health department
- Call your school nurse
If your school doesn’t offer free condoms – or you don’t feel comfortable getting them on campus – you still have several options, including:
- Planned Parenthood health centers
- Your doctor’s office
- The local health department
The website CondomFinder.com will point you to organizations in your community that distribute free condoms. You have many free and low-cost ways to follow safe sex tips for college students. Take advantage of them!
You can also order condoms online, but you’ll likely need to pay for them and shipping. Still, ordering condoms online is a great option for students who feel shy about acquiring them from local sources.
Safe Dating is a Type of Safe Sex Too
Safe sex tips for college students extend beyond practices that limit exposure to STIs or the prevention of unwanted pregnancy. The advice also prepares young people for dating safely.
Some of the most crucial tips to follow include:
- Only meet dates in public places where you feel safe.
- Tell a friend or family member where you’ll be and when you expect to be home.
- Refuse to enter someone’s home until you know them well.
- Don’t invite a person you just met into your home.
- Go on group dates so that you’re not alone with a stranger.
- Keep personal information private (e.g., your home address).
- Maintain a full charge on your smartphone.
- Take self-defense courses to protect yourself during an unwanted physical encounter.
Avoid Alcohol and Other Drugs
Safe sex tips for college students must include warnings about using drugs and alcohol. Consuming alcohol and other drugs can lower your inhibitions and encourage you to take risks you otherwise would find unacceptable. Under the influence of mind-altering drugs, someone might participate in risky sexual behaviors, such as having:
- Unprotected sex
- Sex with multiple partners
- Sex with a stranger
Intoxication can make it difficult for people to use condoms correctly, diminishing their effectiveness at preventing diseases and pregnancy. Staying sober during sexual encounters is one of the most vital safe sex tips for college students.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also lower the body’s ability to fight potential infections, making it more likely that risky behaviors will lead to adverse health consequences. Don’t let intoxication lower your guard. If you choose to use drugs and alcohol, do so in a safe place.
Attending Events With Alcohol or Drugs
College events tend to expose most people to alcohol and other drugs. Obviously, you don’t have to consume any substances. Many people decide to, though. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, only 14.4 percent of American adults report they never consumed alcohol.
Making a Plan to Play It Safe
If you know that you’ll go to an event with alcohol or drugs, make a plan to stay safe. Find out who else will be attending the event. It might make sense to avoid parties participated by someone you’re attracted to or certain genders’ attention you’ll draw. If you go to the event, decide ahead of time that you’ll abstain from drugs and alcohol. Doing so will make it easier for you to follow safe sex tips for college students.
You can also find a friend who commits to staying sober during the event. Having a trusted, sober friend by your side can lower the risk that you’ll do something dangerous. For example, they can intervene when they see you preparing to leave the party with a stranger or former partner. No one can completely control your actions. However, a sober friend can interject some common sense into the situation and help you follow safe sex tips for college students. Staying safe could mean your sober friend removes you from the situation.
Remember to Always Follow Safe Sex Tips for College Students
Take advantage of these safe sex tips for college students whenever you have sexual contact. Just one encounter with the wrong person could lead to multiple infections or unwanted pregnancy. Never assume someone you know gets tested regularly. Always have an open, honest conversation before sex, and make sure you use protection.
If you have any questions about practicing safe sex, reach out to your school’s student health department. They frequently provide a lot of valuable advice to help college students stay safe and healthy.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/key_statistics/s.htm#sexualactivity
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV infection – fact sheet. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm
Planned Parenthood. How effective are internal condoms? https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/internal-condom/how-effective-are-internal-condoms
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol facts and statistics: Alcohol use in the United States. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics