Late in 2010, a cocktail waitress sued Robin Williams, claiming that the actor had given her herpes. The case was settled out of court. Damn Mrs. Doubtfire — why did you have to go and do that? But so what if a celebrity falls from grace every now and again? These events must be pretty distant from our lives here at Yale, right?
Last semester, Esete Woldermarian ’13, Patrick Mitchell ’11, Sophia Sanchez ’13 and myself designed a study to determine the barriers to STI testing at Yale. We distributed an online survey with 34 structured and open-ended questions, which were answered by 159 students from the Yale School of Medicine, Yale School of Public Health and Yale College. After we grouped respondents into sexual risk groups and evaluated their testing history, the results were clear. Though respondents were engaging in risky sexual behavior — defined as never to sometimes wearing a condom during vaginal or anal sex in the past six months — many were not getting tested regularly.
For the 127 respondents having vaginal sex, 51 percent had engaged in risky sexual behavior, and of these, 47 percent had not been tested in the past year; 18 percent had never been tested. For the 30 respondents having anal sex, 76 percent had engaged in risky sexual behavior and of these, 65 percent had not been tested in the past year; 22 percent had never been tested. These figures were confirmed by a News interview conducted last year with Dr. James Perlotto, chief of student and athletic medicine at Yale HEALTH, who indicated that only a third of sexually active Yale students are getting tested.
So why are Yale students who engage in risky sexual behavior not getting tested? The most frequent response to this question was that students, despite their risky business, do not feel that they are at risk of STIs from the people with whom they are having sex. As one respondent put it, “I don’t plan on having anal or vaginal sex with at-risk people (sluts).”
However, studies concerning the incidence of STIs on college campuses indicate that this “slut” qualifier is misguided. A 2006 article in the New England Journal of Medicine found that if a college woman has four sexual partners over the course of her four years in college, she will have an 85 percent chance of leaving college with a strain of HPV — a sexually transmitted virus that can produce genital warts and cervical, vaginal or anal cancers. This statistic becomes even more startling when one learns that the researchers assumed her sexual partners would be wearing a condom 100 percent of the time. Chlamydia, the most common sexually transmitted infection, is asymptomatic in 25 percent of men and 75 percent of women, meaning that many students may be acquiring and transmitting STIs without even knowing they have them.
Despite these statistics, students have a tendency to otherize those who could be carrying an STI. Since sex is involved in the transmission of the infection, we start to make normative judgments about the people who have contracted it. Maybe it’s one of those skimpily dressed girls waiting in the cold outside Toads; the Ke$ha-type. Yet, though STIs have become something dirty in our minds, they, just like the flu or mono, spread through a pretty routine human interaction.
You may be surprised by who actually has an STI. In 2007, an assistant to Jessica Alba confessed that her staff had been picking up her prescriptions of Valtrex, a treatment for genital herpes. Reports traced her infection to her recent ex-boyfriend Derek Jeter of the Yankees, who has had relationships with other celebrities including Mariah Carey, Vanessa Minnillo and Jessica Biel. Oh hey there sexual tree — killing so many people’s wet dreams right now.
Community Health Educators, a student-run organization that provides health education to New Haven high school students, recommends that a sexually active student should get tested for STIs every six months or whenever they change sexual partners. But how can we ask these high school students to be so vigilant about their sexual health when our fellow Yalies fail to follow such guidelines? When 21 percent of sexually active Yale public health students have never been tested? When we can never imagine saying, “Hey baby, check out this sexy strawberry-flavored dental dam”? All this remains the case even though testing services are both free and confidential at Yale HEALTH.
If we even hope to address STIs, we can’t skirt the discomforting facts about our own behavior — whether we admit it or not, we are just as susceptible. Just like Jessica Alba. Just like New Haven high school students. Just like everybody else.
Allie Bauer is a junior in Saybrook College.