On the day after Valentine’s Day, it’s time to talk about sex — the good kind: safe sex.
Perhaps you think Yale is doing pretty well in this area. Indeed, last fall Yale topped a sexual health report by Trojan as the only school to receive a perfect score. Being a leader, however, isn’t easy, and as the flurry of recent news articles around the human papillomavirus vaccine and Plan B emergency contraception suggest, Yale’s sexual health policies lately have been, well, flaccid.
The root of this problem, I think, lies in a phenomenon that you won’t find on the front page of the News: the ever-dwindling bags of condoms in the dorms. Yale says it will provide free condoms in every entryway, but the fact is that these resources aren’t there when you need them. In my floor of Rosenfeld Hall, I haven’t seen any condoms since the beginning of the year, and across the street in TD, the bags for condoms haven’t been filled since December. This trend is apparent in all of the residential colleges, and the bottom line is that something’s not right.
I think that most of us can agree that condoms are good for public health. You’ve been taught the facts in sex-ed class after sex-ed class, but studies show that only one-fourth of sexually active people between the ages of 18 and 24 use condoms. The major reasons cited? Access and cost.
Access and cost are also major obstacles that have been in the news recently around the HPV vaccine and Plan B emergency contraception. The $360 price tag for the HPV vaccine in particular is prohibitively expensive, and without the support of University Health Services, it is unlikely that students will take advantage of this breakthrough in public health.
Yale’s slow response is unfortunate, since all these prevention methods are quite cost-effective. HPV costs the United States approximately $3 billion a year, and the available contraception to prevent one abortion would save the University approximately $400. Moreover, other Ivy League schools have already stepped up to the plate. Dartmouth and Princeton both subsidize the HPV vaccine, and Harvard pays for Plan B over the counter. Yale can afford these programs, and if it wants to maintain its leadership in promoting sexual health, it must step up.
So if cost isn’t really an issue for Yale, why is the University falling behind? In a word, complacency. For example, the problem is not that University Health Services doesn’t want to provide condoms for free to students (sometimes when you go to UHS that’s all you get), but rather that no one is bringing them to the dorms. Volunteer peer health educators are primarily charged with this task, but most fall through the cracks. In a similar fashion, UHS administrators have a responsibility for our health, but with no one looking, it’s easy to stick with the status quo despite new advances with the HPV vaccine or with Plan B contraception.
Don’t get me wrong — peer health educators and even UHS do good work. Our peers are often the easiest to relate to, and the peer health educators do try to make a difference. Yesterday above Commons, for example, some peer health educators were giving out cupcakes and condoms and spreading the word about prevention as part of Sexual Health Awareness Week. Even I learned something new. The only problem was that I was the only one there.
Herein lies the source of this complacency around public health — no one listens until it’s too late. There is no announcement when the bag of condoms runs dry, and Yale doesn’t publicly announce that HPV wouldn’t be funded or that Plan B won’t be paid for. Instead, we wait until months later when someone gets pregnant or contracts an STD. It’s ironic that a couple’s sex incident in the shower would generate more national attention than everyday efforts to save lives, but such is the fate of public health.
Yet even if the University’s complacency is understandable, the result is not acceptable. We as a community must step up and make sexual health a priority, both at Yale and at the state and federal levels. Some say that these issues are matters of personal responsibility, but in reality we are the ones who are at fault for not applying what we know to prevent these problems in the first place.
Fortunately, action to change policy is happening as I write. In the last three days, nearly 1,000 students have signed a petition to encourage Yale to support the HPV vaccine, and more efforts around sexual health are getting under way.
Community action, however, is not enough. As the condom example demonstrates, relying on students alone is not enough. We must institutionalize effective policies and commit the necessary resources so that these efforts can be sustainable. In addition to supporting the HPV vaccine and Plan B, Yale needs to keep us informed about changes to the health plan and assure us that the services we need will be available when we need them. Issues of the day will come and go, but fundamental public health challenges will be with us always.
Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.