When Dr. Iverson Bell first came to Morehouse College as a freshman in 1969, the campus code of conduct regarding mingling with students of the opposite sex was fairly rigid. "The era of suits and ties was over by then, but we still had strict behaviors," says the Morehouse alumnus. At the time, Bell's future wife was a Spelman student, and he recalls that it wasn't until they were both upper classmen that he saw the inside of her dorm room.
Today, Bell is a psychiatrist who heads the counseling team at the Morehouse Wellness Center. Included among his duties is the task of providing students counsel and guidance on sexual health issues.
"It is not that the morality or the mores are that much different," he says, comparing today's student culture to that of his youth. But "people are more open."
Sexual expression has been a significant theme in youth culture for generations. Today, however, sexually explicit content is the cornerstone of youth-oriented music, their approach to style and fashion, radio, television and film, the music video culture, and cyberspace. Not only do students, therefore, appear more "open" in their attitudes, their behaviors also are more openly varied than they once were, encompassing celibacy as well as heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual relationships. Those who choose to be sexually active face the challenge of protecting themselves from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Many students also need support coming to terms with their sexual identity.
Contrary to the "don't do it, and if you do, don't get caught" days of old, when the bulk of sexual health resources on campus focused on pregnancy prevention or "family planning," today's post-secondary institutions offer an array of student support services focusing on sexual health and sexual responsibility. These programs range from the distribution of condoms, birth control and emergency contraception to prevention of sexually transmitted disease and workshops on appropriate relationship behavior and protection against sexual assault. Some schools are even beginning to reach out to a group the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identifies as "men having sex with men" or MSWM, which includes males who may not embrace a gay lifestyle, but who engage in homosexual activity. Experts in the field consider these types of services an essential part of ensuring the overall well-being of the campus community.
In the midst of all this activity, there is surprisingly little in the way of national research and data available depicting what percentage of college students are sexually active, how their behaviors may or may not differ from those of non-college students in similar age brackets, and what the consequences of student behaviors are for them and the institutions they attend. For these reasons, it is difficult to accurately determine how the sexual activity of today's college students compares to that of previous generations. Among the information that is available, most is not disaggregated by race, and there appears to be little information comparing the levels of service provided from campus to campus or examining which segments of the student population are accessing these services. This dearth of information presents a challenge for those in the higher education and health care communities who are charged with designing, administering and assessing services to meet students' sexual health needs.
One useful source of information about the sexual behaviors of college students is the National College Health Assessment (NCHA), sponsored by the American College Health Association (ACHA) and directed by Dr. Victor Leino. Roughly 1,000 postsecondary institutions are members of the ACHA and since 1998, the organization has conducted semiannual surveys inquiring about the health status of American college students. While not exclusively focused on the sexual nature of student health, the NCHA survey includes several questions on the topic. …