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The Dartmouth
May 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Unpacking STIs and Sexual Health at Dartmouth

One writer investigates student awareness surrounding STIs on campus, and the barriers that stand in the way of getting tested.

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From engineering to art history, Dartmouth’s liberal arts curriculum teaches us almost everything. We learn to analyze Dante, craft papers on military strategy and write poetry. So in the crucial domain of our health, why do many of us have so little knowledge when it comes to STIs? 

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — also referred to as STDs — are a variety of bacterial, parasitic and viral infections most commonly transmitted through sexual contact. As college students, we are especially prone to STIs. One in four college students has an STI, higher than the estimated national average of one in five people, so our odds of avoiding infection aren’t great. It makes sense — at college, we taste freedom for the first time, explore our sexualities and are young enough to feel invincible. Add those factors to Dartmouth’s pervasive hookup culture and close-knit community, and our campus becomes a breeding ground for STI transmission — but not all students are aware of the risks.

One member of the Class of 2024, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his experiences, said he only finds himself worried about STIs right before having sex.

“It’s not something that I’m actively thinking about very regularly, unless I'm about to have sex with someone,” he said. “Then maybe you question it, but I think for the most part it’s not a problem that’s regularly on my mind.”

However, he acknowledged that Dartmouth’s attitudes surrounding hookups can lead to rapid spreading of STIs, contributing to his momentary fears. 

“I think that in environments where people are having sex more frequently with multiple different partners, you obviously put yourself in a position where STIs could run rampant,” he said. “You create a perfect environment for them to thrive.” 

Another anonymous source from the Class of 2023, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about her experiences, said she worries that the small size of Dartmouth’s population could lead to a higher likelihood of an STI flare-up.

“A small school like this is so conducive to rapid outbreaks of STDs,” she said. “There’s so few people on this campus and the social networks are so intertwined. It’s not like going to a state school where there’s 20,000 people. It freaks me out sometimes.”

While these are justifiable fears, there are numerous preventative measures students can take to mitigate the risk of getting STIs if sexually active. According to the CDC, condoms are a “highly effective” way to inhibit the spread of STIs during sexual intercourse, and preventative vaccines and lube are also helpful in combating the spread of these infections. While other forms of birth control apart from condoms, such as the pill and IUDs, are excellent at preventing pregnancy, they are useless against the spread of STIs.

Dick’s House, Dartmouth’s student-centered medical center, offers free condoms, lube and other tools for safe sex. According to Dick’s House nurse and head of campus outreach, Jed Peterson, RN, students can also get tested for STIs free of charge. Last academic year, Dick’s House performed 1,283 tests for gonorrhea and chlamydia, which accounted for about 13% of the total tests sent to the lab at DHMC during that period, Peterson said. In addition, according to their website, Dick’s House hosts “Happy Hours,” pop-up clinics that provide education about STIs, screening and safer-sex at campus venues in conjunction with student organizations.

Peterson has worked at Dartmouth for two years but has worked at a local hospital emergency room in the Upper Valley since 2009. Over the course of his career, he said he has never seen a school quite like Dartmouth.

“I’ve always worked in college towns, and the campus vibe here is its own animal,” Peterson explained. “There’s a higher degree of individualism and adventure and not being afraid to be yourself.”

However, when it comes to STI testing, students often seem hesitant to get their first screening done. According to Peterson, this ambivalence is an obstacle  Dick’s House needs to overcome. He added that a lack of student knowledge concerning testing discourages students from making an appointment, despite its non-invasive, routine nature.

“One of the barriers is just getting your first screen. Like everything else, for whatever reason, we seem to be programmed to be afraid of things we haven’t done before,” Peterson said. “And then we do them once, and it turns out to not be a big deal.” 

In addition, some students feel that the safe sex resources that Dick’s House offers are not broadcasted enough, which is part of the issue that Peterson is trying to correct. 

“I haven’t ever actually been tested at Dartmouth. I'm not sure how I would do that,” the anonymous member of the Class of 2024 said. “I feel like I’m not super aware of the present risk and danger of STIs at Dartmouth specifically, nor am I very aware of the resources that Dartmouth offers.” 

Even when some students learn about the tests that are offered and manage to overcome their first-time fear of testing, it can be hard to fit it into their schedules. According to the anonymous member of the Class of 2023, setting time aside to get tested is not a high priority for the average Dartmouth student.

“Everyone here is so busy, and for some reason, it’s not on the top of people’s minds, and I feel like it should be — it should be for me too, but it’s just not. I don’t know why,” she said.

However convenient Dick’s House may be, some students may want something easier and faster. Both the anonymous member of the Class of 2023 and Peterson said that more pop-up STI testing clinics in Greek spaces, Collis or other centrally located and highly visited places would increase the number of students getting tested. According to the anonymous member of the Class of 2023, she “probably would have gotten tested” if there was another pop-up clinic. 

“Dartmouth [students] are a specific type of person — we’re all neurotic and busy. It’s not at the top of your list because there's always so much to do in a 10-week term,” she said. “I firmly believe that more [pop-up clinics] would really, really help because it’s right in front of you. It’s way different than having to make an appointment two weeks out at Dick’s house.”

While the outreach program with regards to STIs has made remarkable improvements, Peterson said he wants to expand the program further to include regular pop-up clinics across campus that promote awareness of Dick’s House resources. Peterson also emphasized the flexibility of STI testing and the ability to conduct the tests anywhere. 

“There's really no structure or limitations to the outreach program,” he said. “It would be nice to push the outreach [and] the availability to student groups or [Greek] houses that want to host an event. It’s super easy.”

The anonymous member of the Class of 2024 emphasized how more frequent testing would help students to feel safe and confident if sexually active. 

“I feel like if people got tested more often, it would make me feel more comfortable, like we’ve mitigated some of the risks of catching STIs,” he said.