Comfort Asking for Sexual Consent isn’t Resulting in Condom Use Among College Students

By: Allison Hydzik

Even though most college students feel confident discussing and obtaining consent before sex, that confidence isn’t translating into condom use, new research from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health reveals. 

 The finding indicates that sexual violence prevention programming on college campuses may need to explicitly include direction on how to have conversations about preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs). 

Briana Edison, M.P.H.

 “I was really surprised,” said Briana Edison, M.P.H., who completed the research at Pitt Public Health and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in health promotion and behavior at Georgia State University. “I think there’s an assumption that, of course, if you’re talking about sexual consent, you’re going to talk about other sexual health topics, like preventing a sexually transmitted disease. But our findings indicate that isn’t the case.” 

 Edison and her team analyzed data from questionnaires administered to 2,291 students at 28 college campuses from 2015 to 2017. The surveys – which were part of a larger project led by co-author Elizabeth Miller, M.D., Ph.D., of Pitt Public Health and UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh – asked participants to specify their comfort asking for sexual consent from a sexual partner and inquired about the number of times they’ve talked with sexual partners about using condoms or otherwise preventing STIs, among other questions.  

 About two-thirds of the participants expressed confidence obtaining consent before having sex, but only a third reported talking with partners about preventing STIs and less than a quarter had specifically discussed HIV prevention. The results are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health 

 “There was a definite disconnect,” Edison said. “When students talk about sexual consent with a partner, they are not consistently also addressing condom use.” 

 When she took a closer look at the data, Edison found that Black students were more likely than their white counterparts to discuss HIV and STI prevention. 

 “We don’t know why it is that Black students are significantly more likely to have these conversations, but it’s certainly worth exploring,” Edison said. “It could be life experiences that have made these students more careful or more cultural comfort discussing sexual health. It could be many things, but it would be interesting to see what we can learn that could help all students.” 

 Edison suggests that future research involve interviewing college students and arranging focus groups to discover what they need in order to be comfortable discussing condom use and STI prevention with sexual partners. Those interviews could guide the development of STI/HIV prevention programming for inclusion in sexual violence prevention discussions on college campuses.