The beginning of college marks a time when taking care of yourself becomes an independent task. This milestone means that many incoming students might be starting to look for sexual health resources for the first time or simply learning how to get health care on their own.
According to a 2018 BioMed Central Health Services Research study, college aged-students are the group at the highest risk for sexually transmitted diseases and other sexual health risks — but only 27 percent of college students in the United States have ever used their university’s sexual health resources.
Though it’s an understandably awkward topic, there are a variety of physical and emotional resources offered by Northwestern and student groups which students can access.
For students impacted by sexual violence, relationship violence or stalking — as well as those looking to support a friend through something similar or those who simply have some questions leading into a sexual encounter — the Center for Awareness, Response and Education can help provide support and advocacy. Housed in Searle Hall at 633 Emerson St., CARE’s stated mission is creating a culture of healthy sexuality at the University.
CARE has three full-time staff members who run a crisis hotline for survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. Through the hotline or during appointments, they also answer questions about safe sex, contraception and relationship milestones. CARE counselors can also help students pursue legal action related to Title IX discrimination and provide free contraceptives.
Appointments to talk to a CARE counselor can be made individually, with a friend or on a recurring basis, though they’re only available on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Incoming first-years and transfers typically first learn about Northwestern’s Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators during Wildcat Welcome, when the group leads a discussion about safety and consent. SHAPE, which is affiliated with CARE, works to create a dialogue surrounding sexuality on campus. Throughout the year, SHAPE holds roundtable discussions, workshops, film screenings and speaker series. Recent guests included #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Chicago-based filmmaker Zanah Thirus, while some of this year’s speaker topics included abortion rights, sexual trauma therapy and the #MeToo movement.
While SHAPE is the most prominent student organization focusing on sexual health, it’s not alone by any means. The Northwestern chapter of Planned Parenthood Generation Action has held sexual health presentations in recent years. NU College Feminists, meanwhile sponsors an annual Sex Week celebrating topics like sexual freedom, sexual healing, intimacy and pleasure activism.
Students can make an appointment through their online health portal to get tested at University Health Services (located at Searle Hall) for HIV and a variety of sexually transmitted infections. This includes chlamydia and gonorrhea, both of which are on the rise among the college-age population, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Those on student health insurance can get all STI tests for free, but be prepared to pay between $20 and $90 if you have an outside plan. Students can also opt to seek gynecological services at Searle, including pregnancy tests.
Searle appointments are confidential but not anonymous, meaning that personal information and diagnoses are recorded for student health records but not shared outside of Health Services. Book an appointment in advance if possible. While Health Services does not include STI tests on a general physical exam, students who come in specifically requesting STI tests can generally expect results the next business day. You can also buy next-day contraception and get your birth control prescriptions refilled at the pharmacy on the first floor of Searle.
Though NU provides resources for students to learn about sexual health and safety, the University still has a long way to go in creating a healthy schoolwide sexuality culture, according to campus activists. There is no sexual health organization at Northwestern created primarily by and for LGBT+ students, and some students have publicly questioned whether education and outreach efforts are reaching all sectors of the student body.
The most recent Campus Climate Survey, which is run every three years and was last distributed in 2019, found that about 60 percent of students trust NU to handle sexual misconduct allegations fairly, while LGBT+ students reported higher rates of sexual harassment, stalking and intimate partner violence. As of 2019, only half of Northwestern students were familiar with the University’s definition of sexual assault and about 46 percent said they knew where to find help.
As students begin their Northwestern experiences, initiatives for greater awareness of the University’s existing sexuality and sexual health resources will hopefully bring these numbers up by the next survey in 2022 — and bring the student body together in learning and making informed sexual decisions.