Univ. earns clean bill of sexual health

Yale may be consistently ranking third in the U.S. News & World Report’s list of “America’s Best Colleges,” but when it comes to sexual health, Yale is on top.

Earlier this month, the University earned the top ranking in a recent survey by Trojan Brand Condoms about sexual health on America’s campuses. Trojan’s Sexual Health Report Card noted the resources the University offers to students facing a sexual-health crisis, the birth-control measures it makes available to students, the helpfulness of Yale’s Web site and special events like Sex Week at Yale in granting the top honor, said Bert Sperling, the president of Sperling’s Best Places, the research firm that compiled the report.

Yale was the only school to achieve A grades in all seven categories on which the 100 colleges and universities in the study were judged and a grade-point average of 4.0 — no other school scored above a 3.6. Princeton, the sixth-ranked school, earned a 3.4, and Harvard, which came in 43rd place, was awarded a 2.1.

For most students, Sex Week at Yale may simply be an excuse to attend humorous lectures or participate in unconventional, even titillating workshops. But for the evaluators of Trojan’s Sexual Health Report Card, the event represents much more: a valuable effort to increase understanding of the importance of safe sex on campus. Sex Week was one of the most important features in Yale’s sexual-health arsenal that helped it earn the top ranking in Trojan’s recent survey, Sperling said.

“Yale did very well across the board,” he said. “It was far and away the number-one spot, especially when we looked at, for instance, the extra events and programs that are available, like Sex Week at Yale.”

Sperling said his firm compared the resources available to students at the 100 colleges and universities studied, which included at least one from each state. Schools were selected to create a representative sample of the country’s four-year educational institutions.

Schools were judged on the basis of seven criteria, which included usefulness of the school’s Web site, availability of condoms, ease in acquiring contraception, testing for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault services, advice columns in school publications or question-and-answer sessions and lectures and other outreach programs, Sperling said. In each of the categories, schools received a score of 1-10, which was converted into a letter grade and then used to compute a “grade-point average” that provided the basis for the rankings.

When rating each school, Sperling said, he and his staff put themselves in the shoes of a student seeking information on a matter relating to sexual health. The navigability and utility of the schools’ Web sites was thus a major criterion, he said.

“We looked at Web sites of all the different schools,” he said. “With winters in New Haven, students are not very likely to troop across campus to get information. But they are going to check out resources online. Also late at night if the health center is closed or on weekends when hours might not be suitable, online resources are important.”

Axel Schmidt ’09, a volunteer Peer Health Educator, said he thinks Trojan’s ranking is a testament to Yale’s forward-thinking philosophy on sexual health. Peer Health Educators is a student organization that holds workshops for incoming freshmen about Yale’s sexual health resources and provides other services, such as distributing free condoms in residential college entryways.

“Yale’s commitment to having a progressive stance on sex education and sexual health issues is what deserves credit for this,” he said. “Yale doesn’t have to sit the freshmen through who knows how many hours of educations, between Sex Signals and the Connections workshop. But that really says something about Yale’s philosophy that they put all the information out there and make it available.”

Although a program similar to PHE is in place at Harvard, sophomore Kameron Cullins, who is a leader in the school’s peer counseling program, pointed to the university’s weakness in raising sexual health awareness on campus. But he said Harvard — which received F grades in the categories of condom availability and the presence of a student advice column — is “moving in the right direction” by opening a women’s center and making condoms available to all students.

“The thing about Harvard students is that they are so difficult to cater to and difficult to please, and it’s hard to get information to people who are brilliant,” Cullins said. “I think there are things we can work on, but we definitely are trying.”

The results of the survey were aimed at helping those in the company’s primary consumer target range — 18- to 24-year-olds — make smarter decisions about being sexually active, said Jim Daniels, the vice president of marketing for Trojan. He said part of the solution to reducing STIs and unwanted pregnancies is making sure that contraceptive education and condoms are readily available to college-age students.

“We know that most of these individuals are sexually active,” Daniels said. “We also know, unfortunately, that among those individuals, three out of four of their sex acts don’t involve a condom. And that tends to lead to some pretty sobering health statistics, including very large rates of STIs and unintended pregnancies.”

Daniels said Trojan decided to undertake the project after a series of round table discussions that company executives organized with college newspaper editors from around the country last year. Trojan officials were surprised to learn about the practices of many college students who are sexually active, he said.

“We were actually shocked, and they were too, about how little information is made available to the general student body and about how, despite the fact that there is a significant amount of sexual activity, the discussions about sexual health at the institutional level, and even at the student body levels, are so limited,” he said. “That was the insight that, ‘Whoa, we would have thought that things would be a little different, a little more open on campus.’ And it just wasn’t there.”

Daniels said Trojan has expanded the program of round table discussions to increase the number of participants this year. There is a good chance the company will conduct a similar report in the future in order to gauge schools’ progress, he said.

Patrick Simpson, who works in consumer marketing for Edelman, a firm hired by Trojan to publicize the results of the survey, said the schools included in the survey have generally been receptive to Trojan’s findings.

“Mostly what we’ve seen is that a lot of the schools have responded positively,” Simpson said. “They feel that perhaps they have had weaknesses in areas they continue to improve in. And others, we see that they are happy with where they’ve been positioned in the rankings, but they are always looking for more ways to make sure college students have the information they need.”

But Daniels said some schools have protested the results of the survey, arguing that the research methodology was flawed. Terry Olson, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University — which came in 100th, with F grades in all seven categories — said students there do not seek the services that served as a basis for the survey since the school’s honor code forbids extramarital and premarital sex.

“The hysterical thing about this survey is, it assesses sexual health on the grounds of what kind of information is provided on a Web site,” Olson wrote in an article in the Deseret Morning News. “It collected no data on rates of STIs on campus or rates of unintended pregnancies. There are no empirical foundations and no discussion of actual behavior on campuses.”

But Yale administrators welcomed the results of the survey. Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said she is not familiar with the Trojan survey, but thinks the recognition might be the result of the administration’s focus on student well-being and education. Trachtenberg said Yale is always looking to improve its sexual health and safety education, and by making students feel welcome at University Health Services for examination and treatment.

“We are open to student needs and always supportive of students, and we have a very good education program,” she said. “If they are recognizing that we are caring of our students … then I think that is fine.”

Sperling said Yale was the only school in the survey to distribute Plan B, or the “morning-after” pill, to students for free at the school’s health center.

Although he thinks Yale’s support structures are helpful in preventative measures, Kyle Gong ’09 said he thinks the University offers inadequate support to students who become pregnant and decide to take the baby to term.

“I hear all the time about how there’s the morning-after pill and all these other options,” he said. “But I’ve been talking to a bunch of friends, and basically what we agreed is that if a girl was to get pregnant and decided she wanted to keep the baby, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of support in that way. It’s only a choice if there’s stuff available no matter what she decides to do.”

But Yalies said they generally see the resources Yale offers as helpful, even if they rarely have reason to use them. Eve Burstein ’08, who worked as a counselor during Yale’s summer session, was in charge of getting condoms from Yale University Health Services and distributing them to her counselees. She said she thinks including condom distribution as a duty for counselors is important in ensuring that students practice safe sex.

“I think I’m pretty aware of what resources are available to me, but luckily I just haven’t had to take advantage of them,” she said.

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