Student Health Services does an admirable job with several facets of sexual health. Free condoms are easily accessible, ubiquitous in dorm hallways, and obtainable at the Student Health Center. A discreet vending machine at Pomona College’s Walker Hall houses heavily-discounted Plan B, alongside Carmex and razors.
Yet, a truly comprehensive approach to safe sex on campus necessitates more than free Trojans. It means creating a welcoming environment in which students can access healthcare, with the expectation that they will be free from judgement. It means encouraging a culture of radical honesty and openness both between partners, as well as between students and doctors. It means addressing what exactly no one wants to talk about: sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.
For an ostensibly progressive and sexually active campus, STIs remain something shrouded in mystery and stigma. Wild rumors about the “Claremont Herpes” abound; horror stories about Student Health Services proliferate. This culture of secrecy and hysteria is harmful. Stigma makes students only less likely to disclose their status to sexual partners and exacerbates the spread of infections.
And the current spread has indeed been exacerbated. In Los Angeles County, according to the latest data from the California Department of Public Health, reported cases of chlamydia increased by 14 percent, gonorrhea 75 percent, and syphilis a terrifying 80 percent between 2011 and 2015.
These numbers demand radical change in the way we view STI prevention. First, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the paradigm of checking for STIs. Sexually active students should be screened for STIs as a matter of routine, instead of only when symptoms manifest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that sexually active persons should be screened for STIs every six months and with every new partner.
The reality of the situation, though, is that a myriad of obstacles stand in the way of students getting regularly screened. Prohibitive cost — $70 for a plate that tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, herpes simplex virus, and HIV — combined with what several interviewed students have perceived as an unaccommodating and insensitive health center, all make students less likely to be screened regularly.
Several students I spoke with felt shamed while at SHS for routine screening. A female sophomore at Pomona, who wished to remain anonymous, described to me an unpleasant encounter with an SHS doctor during a routine screening.
“The first time that I got STD tested … was in May of last year,” the student said. “It was the end of my freshman year. I saw a male doctor, who was assigned to me. He asked me how many sexual partners I had had; I answered six. Looking at the screen, he said, ‘Whoa, that’s a little above average.’”
The doctor then, according to the student, remarked that her number of sexual partners explained why she had come in, despite not having any symptoms.
“I just thought of it as my responsibility as a sexually active person,” she said. “I didn’t have any ‘real’ reason to. Just to be safe.”
The doctor’s probing for justification of a routine screening is evidence of exactly the kind of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality that prevails on campus, despite wisdom to the contrary. And that is exactly the kind of harmful thinking that makes students less likely to show up regularly for testing.
The student explained to me that the doctor’s comment would have made her less likely to disclose personal information and symptoms to the doctor.
“It made me feel like a slut,” the student continued. “I was a little bit shook by that.”
Another Pomona student, who also wished to remain anonymous, told me that he, too, had felt shamed by comments from his doctor at SHS. During the spring of his freshman year, he had gone for a routine STI screening at the center.
“The doctor asked if I slept with men or women, and I said I slept with men,” the student wrote in an email to TSL. “He then off-handedly commented that men’s bodies ‘retain’ STDs, and thus I would be more susceptible to them.”
The student perceived the comment to be homophobic; a year later, he harbors distrust towards SHS.
In an email, Vice President for Student Affairs Denise Hayes encouraged “any student that has a negative experience with a provider … to write an evaluation in the comment box located in the lobby, or by contacting Denise Hayes, vice president for student affairs at (909) 221-8355, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.”
“As to the students, it is definitely unacceptable for providers to respond in ways that makes patients feel uncomfortable,” Hayes continued over email to students. “All providers go through the QRC Ally training, and cultural sensitivity is discussed regularly.”
Despite this training, students were still left feeling judged and reticent to disclose symptoms. These first person accounts aren’t the only factors that discourage students from being properly screened. Between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month at the Queer Resource Center, and on the second, third, and fourth Tuesday at the Tranquada center, 7C students can drop in for free, confidential HIV testing.
Despite the free testing, many students have found the time to be inconvenient, or not conducive, to their class schedules. To be tested outside of this timeframe is an additional $22 charge at the SHS.
Devin Mercier PO ’20 recounted his experience trying to get the extremely time-sensitive testing last semester.
“With HIV you have a very short frame, like three days, in order to catch it for it not to have most of its effects,” Mercier said. “If you have a risky encounter, you want to be checked within three days of the encounter.”
Because of scheduling gaffes on the part of the Health Education Outreach Center, and Mercier’s class schedule, he had to wait more than three days after a sexual encounter to be tested. Mercier does not have HIV and remembered the test administrators as friendly and helpful, but he looks back at this a stressful time.
“It made me feel that… [Student Health Services and the Health Education Outreach Center] didn’t feel as much risk as I did during that time,” Mercier. “Especially within the gay community, [STIs] are something that is worried about a lot, and that is really stigmatized.”
When STIs are on the rise, the 7Cs can either work to prioritize student health with increased compassion and accessibility, or it must accept that it is cultivating an unsafe environment for students.
Amy Lowndes PO ’21 is from Maitland, Florida. She likes Dolly Parton, iced coffee, and ’90s crime shows.