Women’s health: Protected in the bedroom

Free condoms and informatiave pamphlets greet visitors to the Peer Health Center.
Free condoms and informatiave pamphlets greet visitors to the Peer Health Center.

Sex at Williams is everybody’s favorite topic to talk about or not talk about, and a host of neon pink condoms and brochures in bathrooms with smiling couples holding hands makes sex look like – well, a lot of fun. This sex-positive attitude is something to celebrate, given that it creates an atmosphere of openness about a once-silenced subject. All these smiles about sex, however, sometimes mask the fact that in heterosexual relationships the onus of sex safety falls onto women, since it is their bodies that bear the brunt of unwanted pregnancy and infection.

Colleen Farrell ’10, co-chair of the Women’s Center, pointed out that women’s sexual health is an important site for women to be able to make choices for themselves and know all of their options. “Because many justifications for and methods of regulating women’s lives center on their reproductive capacity, countless women’s issues are related to issues of health,” Farrell said.

It is only relatively recently that women in the United States have begun to have open access to the contraceptives that allow them to have control over their sex lives. “There hasn’t always been open access for women’s health care,” said Ruth Harrison, director of Health Services. “There are still places that don’t want women to have access to contraceptives.”

At Williams, the Health Center and Peer Health work to promote a pro-sex attitude accompanied by the resources necessary to make sex safe. “We’re pushing for healthier sexual attitudes,” said Meredith Craven ’10, co-president of Peer Health. “It’s become less taboo.”

Ubiquitous and presented in quirky, colorful ways, condoms are the go-to symbol for positive, safe attitudes about sexual intercourse on campus. “Condoms should be used all the time, even in a monogamous relationship,” Harrison said.

Peer Health gives away Durex condoms and sells ONE brand condoms and Trojans, seven for $1. “I tell people, it’s like the cost of a cup of tea,” Craven said.

The Health Center provides the free Lifestyles condoms that are the boon of entry candy/condom bowls – including regular condoms in Lifestyles’ red packaging and also the colored Lifestyles condoms in clear packaging.

With the multiple brands floating around campus, there are disparate attitudes about which packaging to trust. “A lot of people don’t think Lifestyles are as good as Trojans, but if you use them properly, they’re fine,” Harrison said, noting that the Health Center gives away thousands every year.

Craven is skeptical of Lifestyles, and questioned how many of those thousands are actually being used by students. “I think it’s a problem,” she said. “You’re promoting safe sex but giving out a product that isn’t going to work all the time.” She cited knowing several friends who had the colored condoms break during intercourse.

“I would take a Lifestyles out of the bag and hit people with it, like a toy, but I would never use it,” she said. “I think of them as Virginia Slims.”

After condoms, the next easiest contraceptive to come by on campus are orals. “Oral contraceptives are most popular with students,” Harrison said. The Health Center sells packs of Levora and TriNessa oral contraceptives, both for $10 per monthly pack, and writes prescriptions for other brands.

The Federal Deficit Reduction Act, effective in January 2007, stopped universities from being able to purchase oral contraceptives at a reduced rate. At the time, the Health Center offered Cyclessa for $10 a pack, but once the supply ran out at the end of the 2006-07 school year, prices approximately tripled. Not until February 2008 was the Health Center able to begin offering Levora and TriNessa at reduced price.

For some women, oral contraceptives have side effects, sometimes severe, including headaches, breakthrough bleeding or changes in mood. Women also must remember to take the pill each day in order to guarantee its effectiveness.

Other lesser known contraceptive methods include diaphragms, female condoms and vaginal spermicidal gel. The Health Center offers fittings for diaphragms, but they do not offer any other barrier methods besides male condoms.
When alternative birth control methods fail, or if they are not present at all, a woman has several emergency contraceptive options. The Health Center offers Lo Ovral, “the morning after pill,” for free, and prescribes Dramamine to accompany it because the pill can cause nausea.

Plan B is another emergency contraceptive with a higher effectiveness rate, according to Harrison, but because of its price the Health Center does not carry it. At Hart’s Pharmacy on Spring Street, Plan B costs $59.95 and at Rite Aid on Route 2 Plan B is approximately $50. Rite Aid also carries the generic brand, Next Choice, at $37. While Plan B is over-the-counter, women have to request the drug directly from the pharmacist because women have to be 17 to purchase it without a prescription.

The Health Center provides free pregnancy tests and consults with women who have unwanted pregnancies. Gynecologists in the area can provide the “abortion pill,” a medical abortion available when the unwanted pregnancy is detected up until nine weeks since the first day of the last menstrual period, as well as traditional abortions up until 12 weeks of pregnancy. “If a student decides that termination is what they want, we will refer them to a gynecologist in the area,” Harrison said.

For an abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy, the Health Center refers the student to the Planned Parenthood in Springfield, which is approximately 75 miles from Williamstown. Students can get an abortion there up until 18.6 weeks of pregnancy, according to Christina Rossi, media relations coordinator at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

While contraception is the most pressing concern for many sexually active women on campus, women engaged in gay sex have other issues to keep in mind.

“I think because there is no fear of pregnancy, there’s not the same push to use protection,” said one female student who identifies as gay who asked not to give her name.

Dental dams, thin latex sheets which prevent the exchange of fluids during oral sex, are not widely used among gay women at Williams. “Because the nature of lesbian sex is low-risk for transmission of diseases, it’s just not a thought,” the student said.

Some gay women may be more likely to utilize condoms with their strap-on dildos to prevent the spread of common ailments in women including yeast infections and urinary tract infections. “With erotic toys, condoms can help avoid any unnecessary spread of bacteria,” the woman said.

For general sexual health checkups, physician’s assistant Lydia Carollo conducts gynecological exams at the Health Center approximately six hours a week. In the 2008-09 school year she saw over 400 students.

While sexual education about how to avoid contracting chlamydia, gonorrhea or HIV increase awareness, sometimes these discussions eclipse matters of more immediate concern to women on campus.

While they are not an STI, urinary tract infections (UTI), for instance, are a common bacterial scourge that require antibiotics to treat. It is well-known that urination after having sexual intercourse decreases the chance of contracting the infection, but that useful information remains largely at the level of folk wisdom; staff at the Health Center are more likely to talk about the importance of condoms than how to ward off UTIs.

“No one ever told me that you should make sure you pee after sex, but I’d heard about HIV prevention,” Farrell said.
The Health Center offers free STD/STI testing. “Some students are concerned that a bill will go home, but it’s confidential and it’s free,” Harrison said.

Even keeping in mind that the Health Center gets cheaper tests because of the volume they order, STI testing for one person, including a pap smear and tests for chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV, would total around $130.
Even as talking about sex has become increasingly more normal, the topic of sex safety can be more uncomfortable to broach. Craven spoke to the difficulty some people feel in asking a new sexual partner whether he or she has been tested for STDs. “You shouldn’t be nervous to ask that question,” she said.

In reality, the number of people on campus dealing with STDs and STIs that the Health Center knows about is “miniscule,” Harrison said. “This is a very responsible campus. We have a very low rate of STIs and STDs.” Although there could be students seeking testing and treatment off-campus, the numbers that the Health Center is aware of are low.

The week of Oct. 19, the Women’s Center, RASAN and Peer Health are hosting Sex Week, a celebration of sex education and busting sex myths.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *