University of Vermont

Sexual Health

College is an exciting time of exploration, learning, and self discovery. During these years, it is not uncommon to explore different majors, career paths, friendships, relationships, and sexualities. For many of us, college is the first time in our lives we are able to really learn about, explore, and embrace our sexuality, by figuring out our likes and dislikes and clarifying our boundaries.

Despite the freedom we gain in college as adults, we are still constrained by media images, peer expectations, and other societal pressures. These and other pressures, can make it difficult to remain true to ourselves and create a healthy personal (and sexual) identity.

Here are some tips to keep in mind while exploring sex in college.

  • It’s OK to not have sex.
    This had to come first because the media shows a lot of images of college students having a lot of sex a lot of the time.  But those images do not match reality. Many college students attend college without having sex. It is your right to decide whether or not your want to engage with someone sexually.
  • There are more than three sexualities.
    Most people think of sexuality in three categories: gay, straight, or bi. Most people don’t fit neatly into these three categories. Instead, most people are somewhere on a spectrum that can look and feel different at different times in someone’s life.
  • Know what you want from a sexual encounter
    Casual sex may seem like the norm in college (again, the media shows that a lot), but sexual encounters can vary widely. Some encounters can occur within a monogamous committed relationship, a dating relationship, or even a casual relationship. It is important for you and your sexual partner(s) to be clear about your expectations about the meaning of the sexual encounter. For example, if someone is interested in an ongoing relationship and the other person is interested in a one-time hook up, there is the great likelihood that a sexual encounter will result in hurt and disappointment. Be honest and clear about your hopes and expectations before engaging in a sexual encounter and ask the other person about their expectations. If the expectations are not compatible, you or the other person should reconsider having a sexual encounter.  
  • Self-Knowledge is Key
    Knowing what you want is the first step to achieving a fulfilling sex life; both for your physical body and for your emotions. Exploring your body to learn what makes it tick and what makes it hum can open the door to a lifetime of pleasure.  Masturbation is an important skill in learning about your body.  How did you figure out that you liked broccoli or sushi?  You gave them a try, and sometimes it took a few tries to enjoy them, right?  So give masturbation a try (or many tries). Figure out what gives you pleasure and you’ll be in great shape for having that conversation with that special someone.
  • Communication 
    Now that you know what you like, it’s important to communicate to your partner(s) what that is.  And to listen to what they like as well.  “I want to kiss you, how about you?” “Faster please.” “What would you like?” are all great things to say!

    When you ask for something, wait for a response before acting and remember you or your partner may change one’s mind at any point during the sexual encounter.  It is just like the time you ate pizza and the first bite was great and then the second bite burned your mouth so you stopped eating. Talking about sex, and specifics about what you like can feel awkward at first, but just like anything new, it just takes practice to become familiar, and eventually completely normal. 
  • Sex and Alcohol and Other Drugs
    Sex can be fun. Sex can be wonderful. Unfortunately, engaging in sex when one or both partners is under the influence or incapacitated by alcohol or other drugs, can often becomes a disaster. Alcohol and other drugs will impair judgment and the ability to accurately understand the desires and needs of the other person. Too often sex under the influence of substances has led to hurt feelings, embarrassment, regrets, injury, and even sexual assaults. If you are going to engage with someone sexually, it is best to do so when all parties are aware, alert, and free from the influence of intoxicating substances.

Adapted from

Safer Sex and Contraceptives

The term safer sex indicates an effort towards minimizing risk in a sexual situation.  Whether this risk is about pregnancy, preventing the transmission of sexually transmitted infection, or even emotional risk, there are steps to take to minimize these possibilities. In the following paragraphs we will explore abstinence, barriers that reduce the risk of pregnancy, and barriers that reduce the risk of pregnancy as well as STI transmission.


What does it mean to be abstinent?
For some people, abstinence means having no sexual contact at all with a partner. For others, abstinence means having no genital contact with a partner. While abstinence may have different meanings for different people, abstinence is most commonly understood to mean not having sexual intercourse. People may define sexual intercourse as including vaginal, anal, and/or oral sex. When abstinence is discussed as a strategy to prevent pregnancy or the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it means abstaining from activities which put you at risk for STIs and/or pregnancy. Abstinence from intercourse does not have to mean lack of sexual expression and satisfaction, because there are so many other pleasurable things you can do.

Why do people choose to be abstinent?
Being intimate without intercourse is a satisfying way to explore and learn about your body and about your partner's body without any sense of pressure to go further. People choose to be abstinent for many reasons.

How do I choose to be abstinent?
You first need to think about what types of sexual intimacy you are comfortable with. It is important to make these decisions before you are in the heat of the moment because it can be hard to talk about your sexual limits when either partner is aroused. Consider your values and reasons for choosing abstinence, think about situations where it might be difficult to maintain abstinence, and consider how other people or substances like alcohol or other drugs might influence your decision.

STI and Pregnancy Prevention

The only thing that works to prevent pregnancy or prevent sexually transmitted infection (STI) transmission 100% of the time is complete abstinence.  However, you can minimize the risk of pregnancy or of the transmission of a STI by utilizing various barriers and methods of birth control. 

There are many points you should consider as you and your partner(s) choose a method that fits both of your lifestyles. Condoms (internal and external) and dental dams are often recommended as the best safer sex choice for college students, but you may need to try different options until you find the one that best suits you. An individual may switch methods because of changes in relationships, age, health, economic security and lifestyle.

Below you will find a grid that indicates whether the option works best for pregnancy prevention, STI transmission prevention or both.  It’s important to realize that not all forms  prevent both, so it’s important to be intentional in your choices and to communicate with your partner about these choices and the inherent risks.

Barrier/Device Pregnancy Prevention STI

Birth control pills


98% to 99% effective in pregnancy prevention when taken as directed.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.

Cervical cap


84% effective in pregnancy prevention for people who’ve never given birth.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.


88-97% effective for pregnancy prevention based on consistent and correct use.
Provides good but not complete protection against all STIs. Infections transmitted through skin to skin contact may still be transmitted on areas of the skin that are not covered by the condom.

Internal condoms

79-95% effective for pregnancy prevention based on consistent and correct use.
Provides good but not complete protection against all STIs. Infections transmitted through skin to skin contact may still be transmitted on areas of the skin that are not covered by the condom.

Dental dams


Dental dams act as a barrier to bodily fluids, they help reduce STI transmission. Many STIs can be transmitted through oral sex.



99% effective for pregnancy prevention provided no shots are missed.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.



88-94% effective if used consistently, correctly, and with a spermicide.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.

Emergency Contraceptive


75-89% effective for pregnancy prevention.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.

Fertility Awareness Method


75-99% effective for pregnancy prevention.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.



99% effective for pregnancy prevention. Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.



98-99% effective for pregnancy prevention for women less than 198 lbs.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.



99% effective for pregnancy prevention.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.

Spermicides and Lubricants


79-94% effective for pregnancy prevention
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs.



72-84% effective in pregnancy prevention, some STI transmission effectiveness



81-84% effective in pregnancy prevention.
Does not prevent the transmission of STIs

Sexually Transmitted Infections

What are STIs?
Sexually Transmitted Infections, or STIs, are infections that are transmitted through body fluids: vaginal secretion, semen, blood, breast milk, and saliva. STIs can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, genital rubbing, intercourse, oral sex, or any other transmission of fluids. STIs are among the most common infections that occur in the US today. When diagnosed early, the majority of STIs can be cured or treated to alleviate symptoms. If left untreated, STIs can lead to serious health conditions such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), cervical cancer, infertility, and can even be fatal - that’s why getting tested is so important.  Don't hesitate to make an appointment to see a medical provider for a checkup, testing, and treatment.

Types of STIs
There are 2 main types of STIs: bacterial and viral. Bacterial STIs, such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, are often cured with antibiotics. Currently, the Center for Health and Wellbeing has free treatment for some bacterial STIs. However, viral STIs, such as HIV, HPV (genital warts), herpes, and hepatitis have no cure, but their symptoms can be alleviated with treatment, and you can reduce the risk of your partner(s) being exposed.

Last modified May 09 2014 03:56 PM