According to a study published in October by the Public Health Agency of Canada, young Canadians under the age of 30 are reporting the highest rates of chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and infectious syphilis.
Almost half of all Canadians aged 15 to 19 report having engaged in sexual intercourse at least once in their lives. Out of the young Canadians that reported having sex in the last 12 months, 37% report having multiple partners.
Young adults aged 20 to 24 in 1991 accounted for 620 out of 100,000 reported cases of chlamydia, and 100 out of 100,000 reported cases of gonorrhoea. In 2009, the numbers in the same age group rose to represent 1,374 out of 100,000 reported cases of chlamydia and 145 out of 100,000 reported cases of gonorrhoea.
The Public Health Agency acknowledges that in recent years testing for some STIs has become less intrusive (and thus more welcoming) and more accurate, but they say it is unlikely that the increase comes solely from better detection.
Both chlamydia and gonorrhoea cause pain or burning during urination, unusual discharge, bleeding in women, and testicular pain in men. Quite often, symptoms remain dormant, and although the victim is unaware, they can still pass on the infection.
Joyann DosSantos of UTM’s Sexual Education and Peer Counselling Centre believes that the problem is communication.
“I think people are embarrassed. Sometimes I see a student peeking their head in, and I can tell they want to come in but they’re just scared or too embarrassed to come in, and they walk away,” DosSantos said.
“The other problem is misinformation,” said Victoria Gayle, another peer counsellor. Gayle and DosSantos believe that many students are not as informed as they should be.
“There are a lot of myths out there,” Gayle said. For example, one young couple that came in believed that if they had sex three times in a row, the fourth time they would not have to wear a condom because the man would have used up all his fertile sperm.
“It might sound ridiculous to you, but people actually believe these things; they don’t realize that they have to wear a condom every time. But that’s what we’re here for,” DosSantos said.
Sarah Gwynne, a nurse who works for UTM’s Health and Counselling Centre, is not surprised by the rise in STIs among university students. She believes that students coming to university are making new relationships, and it’s often also the first time they experience a real sense of freedom. This makes students more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour. Along with misinformation and more risk-taking, she believes students need to be more aware of their bodies and take the initiative to get tested.
“We encourage students to get a physical every year and be sure to get tested for STIs. Quite often, that’s when you find these things accidentally,” Gwynne said. “Even if you only have sex with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and you are on birth control, having sex without a condom can still give you an STI. If your partner has had a sexual encounter with even one other partner in their lifetime, they may be infected with an STI and not even know it.”
For students at UTM who have questions that they are too embarrassed to ask, or concerns about their sex lives, both the SEC and HCC are open for students to use.
“The SEC is here to give you a comfortable place to talk and ask questions. We’re here to help you out, but if it’s beyond our ability to help, we’ll refer you to the Health Centre, who have trained psychologists, nurses, and doctors,” Gayle said.
The HCC makes a practice of encouraging all students who visit them to take the swab and blood test to be tested for any possible STI.
On the Public Health Agency’s website, there is warning that “if you can’t talk about sex you shouldn’t be having sex”, an idea DosSantos agrees with.
“It’s like taking a university course. You talk about it with your friends and ask for advice on how to handle the readings, or what to do about a test or a paper,” DosSantos says. “I understand that some people are uncomfortable talking about sex with family or friends, but you need to talk to someone. Like everything else in life, people need advice.”