When it comes to sexual health on campus, we often focus on risks – things like STDs, sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy – and how to avoid them. The importance of protecting students from these threats should not be underestimated, but college should also be a place for growth and learning, setting young people up for a healthy and sex-positive future.

How do we do this? We can start by providing students with a holistic approach to healthy sexuality – one that includes but isn’t limited to a focus on negative health outcomes.

Honesty about risks

That doesn’t mean downplaying STD and HIV prevention – these infections pose a significant and growing threat to young people’s health. College age adults have some of the highest rates of new HIV infection, with young gay and bisexual men at particularly high risk. Reported STDs are at an all-time high in the United States, and Americans aged 15 to 24, especially young women, bear the brunt of this burden. This has serious health implications – left untreated, STDs can have devastating consequences, including leading to infertility for tens of thousands of American women each year.  

But, students need more than scary statistics. They need opportunities to learn about the full range of safer sex options and to figure out what works best for them. Condoms are a great option for young people, but not the only option. Those who are having sex should also know how important it is to get tested for STDs, including HIV, and to get treatment if they need it. And for some, pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention may be an option.

Normalizing sexual health

We must also continue to combat STD and HIV-related stigma. This must include normalizing prevention and testing as part of a broader approach to sexual health. Preventing disease should go hand-in-hand with helping young people negotiate healthy, mutually respectful relationships and understand and navigate consent. And it should be a routine part of health care for young people whatever their sexual activity, orientation or preferences.  

College is an unpredictable, exciting time when young people are embracing new identities, meeting new people and experiencing new things. It’s a time of intense learning both intellectually and personally, where we can change the narrative and future of sexual health for Americans.