A test you can look forward to: How STI testing can make sex more fun, free and safe

Despite increased general awareness of sexual health, STIs among young adults are on the rise. A 2021 report by the Sex Information & Education Council in partnership with Trojan Condoms showed an upwards trend of STI contraction among Canadian university students aged 20–24.

The report, which collected responses from 4,500 students across the country, also showed that awareness of STI prevalence as well as condom use both fell during the COVID-19 pandemic. One in three students surveyed said they did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter with a one-time partner.

Similarly, in an informal Sex Survey by The Ubyssey, 40 per cent of 200 respondents said they had engaged in penile-vaginal sex without a condom and without a previous STI screening.

Researchers attributed respondents’ lack of concern to misconceptions and a lack of sexual health education beyond secondary school, leading students to downplay the likelihood and extent to which they could be affected by an STI. In The Ubyssey Sex Survey, the most common barrier to getting tested was a lack of information about where to get tested and how to go about doing it.

Many of the most common infections can also be asymptomatic, which further contributes to inadequate voluntary testing.

In terms of prevention, experts promote condoms and vaccines (such as the Gardasil HPV vaccine), in addition to advocating for the reduction of certain risk factors like substance use and having multiple sexual partners. Advocates also increasingly stress the need to balance the messaging around risk factor mitigation with principles of harm reduction to avoid shaming individuals who are going through an exploratory stage of their lives.

Dr. Rohit Vijh, a senior public health resident at the UBC School of Population and Public Health, works in clinical prevention. He said that destigmatizing sex is an important part of the conversation about STI prevention.

“Having sex is actually a really important part of our overall wellness,” Vijh said. “It promotes pleasure and intimacy and is an important aspect in our lives. It’s all about being empowered to take control over one’s sexual health.”

Routine STI testing is one strategy students can use to screen for STIs, even when no symptoms are present. Vijh recommended anyone who is sexually active to get routine STI tests.

UBC Student Health Services offers STI testing at both of its on-campus clinics. The BC Centre for Disease Control also offers an online assessment tool that allows you to bring samples to a lab and get results without having to first visit a health care provider.

With STI testing, it’s important to keep in mind the “window period,” which is the time between coming in contact with an STI and when it will show up on test results, according to Vijh. The window period varies for different infections, which you can read more about here.

Marginalized people face additional barriers to testing and treatment.

A 2018 study conducted among undergraduate students in Nova Scotia has shown that university students can get trapped in a “cycle of misinformation” due to unclear communication from care providers and the invisibility of sexual health services. This cycle disproportionately affects 2SLGBTQIA+ students.

The study further demonstrated that non-heterosexual female students were 63 per cent less likely and male students 79 per cent less likely to access sexual health service students than their heterosexual counterparts.

UBC offers NURS 280, a course on sexual health, that is available to students from any program. Vijh said that initiatives like this promote an “open dialogue,” which is an integral part of improving access to sexual health services.

“Everyone is at risk if they are [newly] sexually active or have [new or casual partners], it’s about what we do with that and not shame people or make [them] feel bad for having sex,” Vijh said. “But rather, how we can take charge of our own health.”

This article is from Reclamation, The Ubyssey's 2023 sex and relationships issue. Read more personal essays and student stories from Reclamation here, and sexual health and education articles here.