While Yale students have proven their prowess in final exams and standardized tests, when it comes to testing for sexually transmitted infections, there is still room for improvement.
According to a poll of 1,770 undergraduate Yalies conducted by the News, only half of sexually active females and 35.3 percent of sexually active males have been tested for STIs. (The poll defined “sexually active” as engaging in either oral sex or intercourse.)
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Director of University Health Services Paul Genecin declined to give statistics about STI infection among Yale’s undergraduate population, citing confidentiality concerns. But James Perlotto ’78, chief of student and athletic medicine at Yale University Health Services, said only about one in three sexually active Yale graduate and undergraduate students get tested at YUHS, which matches the data in the News’s poll.
While YUHS administrators said Yale students get tested at a rate comparable to students at peer institutions and higher than the national benchmark, Genecin said it is still a concern that there are sexually active students who are not being screened for STIs.
“They could be transmitting infections,” Genecin said.
STIs have been spreading nationwide among the college-aged population over the past decade, said Dana Dunne, an assistant professor at the School of Medicine who specializes in STIs. At Yale, both chlamydia and syphilis infections have been on the rise in the past decade, Perlotto added.
Genecin said Yale students are well-informed about the importance of testing, thanks to campus services like Peer Health Educators, but that some students might not take the time to get tested or are simply uncomfortable with getting tested.
Recently, the student group Reproductive Rights Action League at Yale has blanketed the campus with posters for Sex Week at Yale, promoting STI services to students. RALY co-coordinator Jessica Moldovan ’11 said she understands why only a third of Yale students have gotten tested.
“It doesn’t occur to us to get tested until something is burning,” she said.
TESTING AT YALE
In 2009, the Trojan Condom Sexual Health Report ranked Yale 15th out of 141 major universities for good sexual health on campus, based on the availability of STI testing and outreach programs on campus. But behind this award, Yale’s statistics tell a less pristine story. Only 34.5 percent of sexually active heterosexual males at Yale have ever been tested for STIs, compared to 54.2 percent of heterosexual females, according to the News’s poll.
With less than half of the sexually active undergraduate population seeking STI testing, Dunne noted, many Yalies may continue to have sex without knowing that they are STI-infected. Genecin added that Yale students frequently get STI testing after having unprotected sex rather than beforehand.
In the News’s poll, 2.6 percent of sexually active undergraduates said they had contracted an STI, which does not account for the 57 percent of sexually active undergraduates who said they do not get tested. In comparison, one in four Americans will have been infected with an STI by the time they reach age 25, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While Yale’s data could be interpreted to mean Yale students are very sexually healthy, the results are more likely caused by under-reporting, Perlotto said. Considering the percentage of students who do not get tested, a statistic this low likely indicates that many infected students are unaware they have an STI, Dunne said. She estimated that up to nine out of 10 STI cases are asymptomatic in the early stages, adding that the growing number of asymptomatic, STI-infected individuals creates a greater “burden” for the sexually active population on campus.
Likewise, not all sexually active students on campus always use protection while engaging in sexual activity. According to the News’s poll, only half of sexually active Yale students use a condom 100 percent of the time when having intercourse.
Genecin said one concern is the connection between drinking and the increased likelihood of unprotected sex. Students not using a condom during intercourse may also be in long-term manogamous relationships, Perlotto added. The News’s poll shows that students with more sexual intercourse partners were more likely to get tested for STDs.
Additionally, 93 percent of Yale students who have oral sex have never done so using a condom or dental dam.
“Some of my patients compare oral sex with a condom to sucking on a garden hose,” Perlotto said. “But there are real risks in having unprotected oral sex.”
Among 12 students interviewed, there was a consensus that the number of Yale students using condoms during oral sex — consistently less than 10 percent, according to the News’s poll — was surprisingly low given the transmissibility of STIs through skin contact.
PROMOTING SEXUAL HEALTH
Even though not all Yalies are using STI testing services, it is not as though they have not been warned. Seventeen Yale undergraduates serve as Peer Health Educators on campus to inform students about safe sex practices. Such education is done at freshman orientation, and Peer Health Educators provide additional counseling to upperclassmen about sexual health issues, Peer Health Educators Ceci Wright ’11 and Jharrett Bryant ’11 said. In addition, Peer Health Educators distribute about 14,000 condoms per year in freshman entryways and in YUHS.
Wright said it is a “shame” that so few students get tested, especially given the outreach of groups like Peer Health Educators.
Among Yale students who said in the News’s poll that they are sexually active and get tested for STIs, 57 percent use YUHS to get tested, while 43 percent use other health providers. Perlotto said YUHS makes sexual health resources easily available because it is located on campus, but that it is not as convenient as a more central student center might be in offering these resources.
Genecin added that YUHS has confidential but not anonymous testing, meaning test results still appear on students’ medical records. This policy may discourage some students from being tested at YUHS, even though the results cannot be accessed by anyone except the student, he said.
Even though nearly every part of the University is being affected by budget cuts, there will be no changes to free testing, free condoms and free counseling availability, Perlotto said.
Still, with the onset of Sex Week at Yale, RALY — the reproductive rights advocacy group — has mounted a campaign to encourage more STI testing among students. Last Friday, the first day of Sex Week, about 125 students showed up in the Student Medicine department of YUHS to get free STI testing, RALY co-coordinator Madeleine Rafferty ’10 said. In light of the turnout in past years, the crowd was completely unexpected, Perlotto said.
Rafferty and Moldovan, co-coordinators of RALY, which is also a Yale Women’s Center focus group, said they were pleased by the campus response to their “Get Tested” campaign. Inspired by MTV’s “Get Yourself Tested” campaign in which celebrities advocate for the testing for STIs, the Yale duo conceived of a highly publicized campaign with students — and some faculty, including Howard Dean ’71 and Provost Peter Salovey — serving as testing advocates. RALY worked with the Yale student-based consulting team Maya, pro bono, to produce images of students and faculty holding signs that say: “I did.”
The RALY coordinators said they have received several e-mails Saturday night from students who had decided to participate , thanking them for their efforts.
“We’re making testing cool,” Rafferty said.
Of 12 students interviewed, only three said the campaign inspired them to get tested. Two had already been recently tested, and seven said they thought they did not need to be.
RALY facilitated a pre-STI screening with YUHS Nurses Monday, and will provide another pre-STI screening opportunity today between 6 and 7 p.m. in Sterling Sheffield Strathcona hall, prior to the presentation “Babeland’s Lip Tricks: Blow Jobs and Going Down.”
Previously in the News’ “Sex at Yale” series:
Monday: Yalies, under the Covers
Corrections: Feb. 10, 2010
An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote, “We’re making testing cool.” It was said by Madeleine Rafferty ’10, not Jessica Moldovan ’11.