“In theory you’re sleeping with everyone they’ve ever slept with”

University is often portrayed as a period of hedonism and promiscuity and as it is a time when many students first experience living independently, this often results in boozy nights and subsequent sexual encounters. ‘There is no way I would bring someone back after a night out at home as I live with my parents, but at uni living with friends gives you a certain freedom’ Peter Ashton* tells Impact.

However, with this new freedom comes new risks, and for many students this is in the form of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A recent Impact survey found that 10% of UoN students have had an STI at some point, with 7%` admitting that they contracted the infection whilst at university. 2% admitted that they currently have an STI.

‘There’s a real risk but sometimes you just forget and aren’t quite as careful as you should be, especially after a few too many’, Claire Reeth*, tells Impact. ‘I think it’s just standard that a high proportion of students have had STIs, some wear it almost as a badge of honour’, she adds.

While this certainly portrays an alarming picture, it is important to take into consideration the amount of students who may currently have undiagnosed STIs. ‘I’ve never been tested but I know I’ve put myself at risk of one and I potentially could have an STI unknowingly’, Claire tells Impact.

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Fortunately, the majority of students surveyed claimed to have had an STI test, with 62% admitting that they have been tested at some point. However, as 80% of UoN students admitted to having had unprotected sex it does raise the question of just how many students have an STI without even realising it.

For Tom Hunts* the lack of symptoms from his STI meant that he didn’t realise he had one: ‘The only unprotected sexual encounter I had was about 6 months before the symptoms of the genital warts appeared, and the most recent [protected] encounter was at least a month earlier. It was hard to be sure which encounter caused them due to the fact they are transmitted through skin to skin contact and condoms won’t always help, especially when they can be invisible yet still transmittable. They are, however, quick and easy, if not entirely painless, to get rid of’.

80% of UoN students admitted to having unprotected sex

Impact found that the most common STI amongst UoN students was chlamydia, with 9% of students admitting to having contracted the infection. This is unsurprising, given that it is the most widespread STI in the UK, with 208,755 diagnoses made in 2013 as reported by gov.uk.

‘[I was diagnosed with] chlamydia after I felt pain during sex. I’m not sure which person I got it from, but think it was my ex. When we first started having sex, he said he couldn’t finish because his penis was hurting so much. He went to the doctor and had some antibiotics. I didn’t have symptoms for a while but I’m not too sure if it’s from him though’, Kath Bassett* tells Impact.

‘I’ve never had an STI but I should really get tested as I have had unprotected sex multiple times after nights out. I usually wake up regretting it but usually I’m too drunk at the time to care or even realise’

Like Tom, it was the lack of immediate symptoms that didn’t make Kath realise that she had an STI, which alludes to a worrying trend, particularly as chlamydia is the most common STI, and yet one of the least symptomatic. The NHS estimate that symptoms are dormant in 70-80% of women and around half of men.

Another UoN student who contracted chlamydia whilst at university is Dave Collins*. He tells Impact: ‘I caught it first in October, no idea who from. I ordered the treatment online and self-diagnosed chlamydia. It cleared up, then I got it again in December when the condom came off with one of the girls I had slept with before I got the first one’.

Aside from chlamydia, genital warts was the second most common STI with 3% of those surveyed having had the infection, followed by herpes (2%), gonorrhoea (2%) and crabs (2%).

‘I’m currently waiting on results to check gonorrhoea has been fully cleared from my system’, one UoN student told Impact.

Andy Rose* contracted chlamydia and gonorrhoea at university. He tells Impact: ‘I had a few symptoms, they weren’t pretty. I got it checked at the GUM clinic. Lovely bunch of staff, so friendly and helpful. I’m all clear now but due for another check-up’.

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From the comments left on Impact’s survey, it appeared that the most common way students had caught STIs was from one night stands. ‘You just don’t know who you are sleeping with. In theory, you’re sleeping with everybody they have ever slept with, and considering the fact that many STIs are the result of one night stands it’s hard to know whether they’re lying or not, especially if you have just met them that night’, Claire tells Impact.

Many students are putting themselves at risk, such as Phil Drake*, who tells Impact: ‘Last year I was seeing two people at the same time and terribly not using protection with either. Quite a few of my friends were in the same situation’.

‘I get tested quite regularly, alongside getting someone pregnant I’m super paranoid about having an STI. I’ve only ever done the standard test but my brother has done the swab and it’s meant to be incredibly painful’, he adds.

One student even told Impact that they have contracted chlamydia on 3 separate occasions from one night stands.

While the risk of catching an STI is prevalent in Phil’s mind some students don’t have quite the same worries when it comes to unprotected sex. Second year student Emily Sweeney* tells Impact: ‘I’ve never had an STI but I should really get tested as I have had unprotected sex multiple times after nights out. I usually wake up regretting it but usually I’m too drunk at the time to care or even realise. I know I’m putting myself at risk but if I’m honest it’s the potential of pregnancy that scares me much more than STIs. I’ve never really considered whether someone has one before sleeping with them after a night out’.

Emily’s attitude is concerning, yet not uncommon as 45% of UoN students admitted to not using protection during a one night stand. One student even told Impact that they have contracted chlamydia on 3 separate occasions from one night stands.

It’s highly important to get tested if you feel you may be at risk from an STI. Chloe Averill, the SU’s welfare officer tells Impact: ‘Many students may have concerns over their sexual health due to the nature of university, so it is essential that students are having sexual health checks as often as appropriate for them. We have a great service at Cripps health centre where students can sexual health screenings and run c-card clinics where students can sign up and have access to free condoms’.

There is no doubt that STIs are common amongst the student demographic but so long as care is taken for one’s own sexual health it is possible to stay safe and STI free. ‘It just really isn’t worth it to take such a gamble with your health’, Claire tells Impact. ‘I regret having unprotected sex with someone I didn’t really know. I hope I’m lucky but sometimes the consequences outweigh the benefits’.

Natasha Gregson

*All names have been changed to protect identities

Survey conducted January-February 2015, 367 responses.

Originally published in Impact Magazine.

Photo credits: Courtney Carmody via Flickr, Jean KOULEV via Flickr, and Robert via Flickr.

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