First-year is about growth, transition and exploration. For many students, university marks the time when they become sexually active. On the other hand, some may already be sexually active and others may choose to remain celibate. Nevertheless, at most universities there is a presence of hook-up culture which is fuelled by alcohol and parties. No matter how long you have been sexually active for, it is important to engage in safe sex to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies.

An STI is an infection that can be spread by sexual contact. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that over 1 million new cases of STIs are transmitted worldwide every single day. WHO says that there are eight pathogens which are responsible for the most number of STIs. These include syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus (HSV or herpes), HIV, and human papillomavirus (HPV). While the first four are curable but becoming increasingly drug resistant, the last four are incurable. WHO also notes that some STIs may not be explicitly notable, as is sometimes the case with chlamydia.

WHO says that correct use of condoms is the most effective way to protect against STIs as condoms act as a physical barrier which prevents the exchange of semen and vaginal fluid. Both male and female condoms can significantly reduce the risk of getting most STIs. However, Better Health have noted that some STIs, such as genital warts, scabies and pubic lice, are spread by skin-on-skin contact of intimate areas. This means that condoms will not necessarily protect against this. Furthermore, a condom may break, especially if an oil-based lubricant is used with the condom, or if the condom has passed its use-by date.

Although you cannot get pregnant from either oral or anal sex, you can still get an STI. It is therefore imperative that you still use protection when engaging in these practices. A dental dam, which is a latex sheet that is placed over female genitals , can be used when engaging in oral sex with a woman. When engaging in oral or anal sex with a man, one can use a male condom to prevent the spread of STIs.

While the above-mentioned forms of protection may prevent pregnancy and STIs, there are also types of contraceptives that offer little to zero protection against STIs. These include hormonal contraceptives or ‘the pill’ which offers no protection against STIs, and a diaphragm (a cap worn high in the vagina to cover the cervix) which offers little protection against STIs.

Better Health say that safe sexual practices include kissing if neither person has a cut on the mouth, cuddling, mutual masturbation and using barrier contraceptives. Contrary to this, unsafe or high-risk sexual practices include having sex without a female or male condom, withdrawing the penis before ejaculation, reusing a condom or using a condom incorrectly, and getting bodily fluids such as menstrual blood, semen or vaginal fluids inside another person’s mouth, vagina or anus.

There are many factors that increase the risk of unsafe sex, factors such as being drunk, using drugs, believing that you can ‘see’ if someone has an STI, and feeling pressured to have sex. The latter brings the concept of consent into question. The Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center define consent as “when someone says ‘yes’ to a sexual activity with someone else”. Consent also means being able to say ‘no’ at any point during the sexual activity. Sexual consent should never be assumed, not even when you are in a relationship. Additionally, a person’s silence or inability to say ‘no’ should never be considered a ‘yes’.

Better Health say that the safest sex that you can engage in is monogamous sex, with a barrier contraceptive, when both parties are clear of STIs. If you are engaging in sex regularly, especially with different people, it is important to get tested for STIs on a regular basis. This is to ensure that you reduce the chance of spreading STIs, and to minimise health risks. At the University of Pretoria, the Centre for Sexualities Aids and Gender (CSA&G) give out free condoms and offer free testing and counselling for Aids. The Student Health Services and Clinic at the University of Pretoria also offer treatment, care and support services which include HIV counselling and testing for students.

Photo: Sally Hartzenberg

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