Your first year of college comes with a lot of change, like living away from your family, feeding yourself, making and keeping your own schedule, and not having that annoying midnight curfew.
Another big change for a lot of people? Many folks begin (or continue) to explore their sexuality in college. This is normal and completely ok! However, it’s important to understand how to take care of your and your partners’ health. If you’re going to be starting your first year of college in the fall and are having, thinking about having, or want to be having any kind of sex, do these 7 things to take care of your sexual health.
First, though: It’s also completely normal and ok if you’re not dating or having sex at this point in your life! You may feel like you’re the only one not having these experiences, but you’re definitely not alone.
1. Understand consent.
Consent is a fundamental part of sexual health. Make sure you understand how important it is, what it looks like and how to respect other people’s boundaries.
Enthusiastic consent is never optional. Even if you’re “just hooking up,” you AND your partner deserve to be treated with respect. Silence isn’t consent. Your partner has to actively agree to all sexual activity. In addition, there are times someone can’t consent—for example, when they’ve been drinking or using drugs.
Don’t forget that consent is just as important when it comes to sexting and digital interactions! Learn more about consent.
2. Know how to have safer sex, including how to get and use barrier methods.
Unless you’re going to a religious school, you’ll probably find condoms all over campus. Make sure you know how to use them and where to get them. Barrier methods like condoms and dental dams help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and are essential safer sex tools for everyone, no matter who you’re having sex with.
External (“male”) condoms aren’t the only barrier method. Internal (“female”) condoms are a great option if you’re a receiver during penis-in-vagina (PIV) or anal sex. Dental dams are a barrier for oral sex performed on an anus (rimming) or vagina (eating out, going down on). You can also use latex gloves or finger cots for safer manual sex (fingering, hand job).
3. Get birth control that works for you.
If you have a vagina and might have sex with someone with a penis, find a birth control method that works for you now, before you leave for school. I often recommend an intrauterine device (IUD) or implant before college, since they work well with students’ busy schedules. IUDs last 3-10 years, and implants last three. This means that you wouldn’t have to think about your birth control for most or all of college!
If you have a different method you like, make sure you know how you’ll get it at school. Can your provider send your prescription to a pharmacy near campus? Or can you get it at a student health center?
If you’re having a hard time remembering birth control now, though, think about switching to a less time-intensive method. After all, you’re only going to get busier.
4. Stock up on Plan B.
Just to be safe, consider buying Plan B now to take to college. Emergency contraception (a pill you take after unprotected sex to prevent pregnancy) is more effective the sooner after sex you take it. Having some on hand means you won’t need to find time to get to a drugstore or clinic if a mishap happens. Even if you don’t end up needing it, a friend very well might!
5. Know where and how to get tested for STIs.
If you’re sexually active, it’s a good idea to get tested for STIs (not just HIV) before you leave for college. Once you’ve left for school though, make sure you know where you can get STI testing. Many schools have student health centers that do testing, or maybe there’s a Planned Parenthood or community health center near campus.
6. Know LGBTQ campus resources.
If you’re LGBTQ or unsure about your sexual or gender identity, identify clubs, centers and other safe spaces now so you know where to get support when you need it. College resources might include an LGBTQ resource center, Office of Diversity, or events held by the Gender Studies department. If you’re not sure where to start, just Google “LGBTQ [your college name].”
7. Check in with yourself.
Exploring your sexuality can be a new, exciting experience, but it can also feel nerve-racking or confusing. Your beliefs and values surrounding sex may change. You may find yourself attracted to people who are different from the people you dated in high school. That’s all ok! It’s healthy to be open to new experiences, and what you think and want will change as you grow and get to know yourself better.
Just keep checking in with yourself about how your relationships and/or sexual experiences make you feel. Do they leave you feeling happy, healthy and safe? Or uncertain and not in control? If it’s the latter, think through why you feel this way and what you can change to help you feel secure in your body. Know what a healthy relationship looks like.
If you’re a survivor of sexual violence, dating and sex may feel especially complicated or confusing, and bring up difficult emotions. That is completely normal and ok. Take your time, and know that it’s ok for sex to not be a part of your life right now. If you aren’t already, talk to a therapist about what you’re going through. You are not alone.
If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC, call the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center at 212-423-3000 for confidential, comprehensive health care, including STI testing and treatment, birth control, PrEP/PEP, and counseling—all at no cost to you.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.