For many students, college is a time to explore one’s sexuality and develop a positive, healthy familiarity with sex. In many cases, this can contribute to a significant increase in both self-esteem and overall well-being. Here on campus, the University Health Service (UHS) is the primary location for students to stop in for flu shots, to fix that glare-inducing cough, or to get out of a looming exam. Students also utilize UHS for access to both male and female contraception, STD testing, and sexual health checkups. It is undoubtedly an invaluable resource for sexual health on campus, but some student experiences have not been as fulfilling as others.
Many students are not exposed to sexual health mentorship, such as a parent, trusted adult, or gynecologist, prior to arriving at college. Madison, a junior, recalled having this sort of background. Upon coming to UR, UHS became her main resource for sexual health questions and concerns. Throughout several doctor visits over the months, she was consistently asked how many sexual partners she had. The follow-up question was always whether or not she had a “boyfriend.” When she replied no, Madison was met with an awkward, tense silence. “After a couple visits, I started lying about my number of sexual partners,” said Madison. “I felt victimized and just generally uncomfortable, like I was doing something horribly wrong.” Madison added that she has had to wait almost two weeks for any available appointment slot, and has since resorted to the Internet to address her questions and concerns about sex and wellness.
Chloe, a senior, recollected a similar experience she had with UHS as a freshman. She made an appointment with UHS after noticing odd symptoms following protected sex. The doctor asked Chloe typical questions, such as if she was sexually active, but also inquired into her relationship status with the male partner, which was not a serious, monogamous relationship. “She then asked me in a very accusatory tone if I had been drunk during the sexual encounter,” recalled Chloe. “I questioned the relevance of the question since it seemed unimportant to the medical issue at hand.” Chloe was unable to complete an STD test due to the extreme discomfort and mortification she was experiencing, and soon fled the building. However, she returned a couple days later upon realizing she might be at risk for Toxic Shock Syndrome. “When I walked into the appointment, I couldn’t believe it – I had the same doctor again. And unbelievably, she demanded again if I was drunk just because I had forgotten to take a tampon out. She insisted that ‘drunk girls think that they took out their tampons when they didn’t.’ It was humiliating.” The doctor asked if she was the same girl who had abandoned the appointment recently. Chloe admitted as much and explained that she had felt very scared at the time. Still, the doctor was not supportive, kind, or sympathetic in any way. “It was as if the doctor was committed to this idea that girls drinking socially leads to irresponsible sex on the girl’s part, and the girl is solely to blame.”
To gain a better understanding of both female and male experiences on campus, I asked John, a junior, to describe his visit to UHS. He had oral sex with a girl he did not know and quickly developed a painful infection. Fearing he had an STD and wanting to err on the side of caution, he booked an appointment. Like Chloe and Madison, he was asked about his sexual activity and if he had been drunk. “The doctor told me to be more careful when engaging in sex with someone I didn’t know,” he reported. “The advice itself was totally valid, but her tone was definitely more judgmental, and less like she was trying to be genuinely helpful.” When John was referred to Strong Hospital for a follow-up, he noticed the doctors there to be more professional, unbiased, and comfortable.
Don’t get me wrong – UHS is full of talented, kind, and capable physicians. While the intentions of the doctor were surely solely to provide the best care possible, the examples of Madison’s, Chloe’s, and John’s encounters with judgment and condescension are troubling. Sexual matters are delicate, sensitive, extremely personal, and must be approached as such. When students feel condescended to, it can devalue their experiences and potentially discourage them from seeking health care in the future. Instead of shaming student drinking – an activity that certainly is prevalent on college campuses – our health experts should understand their patients typically enjoy going out on the weekends, drinking, and engaging in sex with one another. If a patient with a health concern had not been drinking, the loaded question might incur a sense of shame, as if their act was irresponsible and had happened under the influence. If students are expected to sign up for STD testing without the fear of facing judgment from peers, the examination room must be a safe space first. After all, a student wouldn’t be judged for contracting another’s sicknesses, right? With a more open, judgment-free conversation between doctor and patient, STD testing could lose the stigma of recklessness and irresponsibility that accompanies it. Getting regular checkups and testing should be viewed as a responsible choice and the norm. Safety, health, and consent deserve to be emphasized. A doctor’s visit can be uncomfortable enough — there’s no need to add insult to injury.
Ganeles is a member of
the class of 2015.