A Bass Connections team is researching how the pandemic might impact sexual behavior and sexual health among college students in the Triangle.
The project team, called Sex and Contraception Among College and Graduate Students During COVID-19, will conduct a survey of undergraduate and graduate students to gain an understanding of how their sexual behavior and access to sexual health education and resources may have changed due to COVID-19.
“What are the things people are engaging in? What does that put them at risk for? Does it put them at risk of unintended pregnancy? Does it put them at risk for sexually transmitted infections? Are they still able to access services that would help keep them safe, so in particular, contraception?” said team co-lead Jonas Swartz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology.
Swartz said that he is particularly interested in learning about the “calculus” of dating during the pandemic, which might include whether people decide to go on dates, what activities they decide to do, and whether they meet online before meeting in person.
Swartz said that the idea for the project originated during discussions with second-year medical student Emily Chen, who is also on the Bass Connections team.
“Prior to COVID, [we] had been interested in looking at some of the new telemedicine opportunities to get contraception,” Swartz said. “Then when COVID occurred we started talking about how access to contraception in particular might be affected by COVID, because people might have lost access to their primary care, to the clinics.”
In July, when Bass Connections opened applications for pre-existing projects with additional spaces and new projects related to COVID-19, senior Clarice Hu joined the project because it aligned with her interest in reproductive health.
“Last summer, I worked virtually at a pregnancy clinic, and so I was able to see a lot of the disparities in terms of access to reproductive health, and racial disparities as well,” she said. She expressed that this particular Bass Connections project combined her interests in sexual health and health disparities.
Swartz then connected with Adam Hollowell, senior research associate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, and Keisha Bentley-Edwards, assistant professor of medicine, to discuss how the pandemic may have disproportionate effects on sexual health among people of color, which eventually led to a conversation about students.
Hollowell, Bentley-Edwards and Evan Myers, Walter L. Thomas distinguished professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the School of Medicine, are co-leaders in addition to Swartz.
“We started thinking about whether, in addition to the barriers to access to contraceptive care in general, whether there might be greater barriers to access among college and graduate students that exacerbated existing health disparities in reproductive health care,” Swartz said.
One factor that is unique to students, Swartz noted, was that many were displaced when campuses shut down in the spring, which may have variable effects on dating and sexual activity.
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“That may have been a disruption,” he said. “And now, as you know, there’s a real hybrid. Some people are back with their colleges and some people aren’t. And so I think there is likely a bit of diversity within the population.”
Hu said that she is curious about how student experiences vary across different types of schools. “I think it’ll be interesting to see how the differences are between four-year institutions, community colleges and other types of universities,” she said.
That look at student experiences at universities includes examining sexual education and access to care at Duke.
“We’ll also be doing some capacity building or engaging with Student Health at different institutions to help our local community support students as they weather the pandemic and engage in certain normal behaviors,” Swartz said.
Hu said locations like the Women’s Center and Student Health provide a lot of good sexual health resources, but that the information “feels a little bit all over the place.” She also feels that there needs to be a more open dialogue around abortion at Duke.
According to Hu, one product that the team is developing is an infographic containing COVID-19-specific information about sexual health. The team will also develop a set of guidelines to share with the Duke community.
Swartz emphasized that the safest way to prevent transmission of COVID-19 was to avoid close personal contact, including sex. However, there are still ways to protect oneself should one choose to engage in sexual activity.
The University of Georgia put up a list of COVID-19-related sex guidelines over the summer, with six bullet points that included recommending “solo sex, or [limiting] the number of sexual partners you have.”
The school then took down the guidelines after “the information was mocked, ridiculed and criticized on social media,” UGA spokesperson Greg Trevor told The Red & Black, the school’s student newspaper.
However, more comprehensive recommendations are still available.
“For those who choose to engage in partnered sex, there are good guidelines from New York City, Washington, D.C. and Oregon about how to reduce your risk,” Swartz wrote in an email. “It remains important, of course, to have open communication about consent and use contraception to protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.”
At Duke, Peer Advocacy for Sexual Health, a student group that provides sexual health resources, also published a March column in The Chronicle with recommendations for socially distanced sexual activity.