On this page, you'll find information about various sexual health topics, arranged into sections. Within each section, you'll find an FAQ-style breakdown of some of the common questions we get about that topic. If you have any other questions, feel free to swing by our dhall office hours, or email us! Also, check out our resources page for some links to reputable websites that may have an answer to your question.
Condoms are a form of birth control and come in many different styles. Normally made from latex (though SHARC stocks non-latex Polyurethane external condoms and the nitrile internal condom), condoms provide a thin barrier during intercourse or oral sex on a penis that helps to prevent the risk of contracting an STI or unwanted pregnancies. Condoms can be used on any penetrative object for hygiene, convenience, and STI prevention. They can also be used as water balloons!
The internal condom, or the "female condom/FC2," is similar to the external condom in that it provides a barrier to sperm and microbes, helping to prevent pregnancy and STIs. However, unlike the external condom, the internal condom is inserted into the vagina (up to several hours before sexual activity). The internal condom may be favored because it gives more agency to female-bodied individuals, doesn't require stopping foreplay to put on a condom, and is latex-free. Internal condoms should not be used in combination with external condoms, as this can cause friction between them and degrade both, decreasing their efficacy.
There are many types of lubricants, which are body-safe substances that can be applied to the genital area to decrease friction and make sex more comfortable/pleasurable. There are three types of lubricant: water-based, silicone-based, and oil-based. Each has pros and cons, but oil-based is often seen as the least favorable because it cannot be used with condoms (it degrades them). Between water-based and silicone-based lubes, silicone-based are longer lasting but are not absorbed into the body and are therefore harder to clean up, while water-based are absorbed and therefore have less chance for mess but may need to be reapplied more often. Silicone-based lubes can also decrease risk of STI transmission :)
STD stands for sexually transmitted disease, but the word disease implies symptoms. Sexually transmitted infection is more medically accurate because many STIs never or only sometimes show symptoms, yet can still cause underlying issues such as sterility or be passed on to one's partner(s). In addition, the word "disease" carries social stigma and can make it more difficult to talk about this important health issue.
Most STIs are transferred through bodily fluids, and some can pass by skin to skin contact, so that means that you can transmit STIs through virtually any type of sexual activity, including oral and anal sex, and even sharing sex toys. Fortunately, you can prevent STIs by using a barrier that prevents direct skin-to-skin-contact, such as an external or internal condom, a dental dam, or gloves. All of these are available for free at SHARC and many other places around campus!
We recommend that sexually active people be tested for STIs at least every six months. The most common symptom of an STI is no symptom at all, so even if you don't have any symptoms, it's good to get tested, just in case--if you do have an STI, it may be easier to treat the earlier you find out about it.
Harvard students can get free STI testing at HUHS by making an appointment with their primary care physician through the Patient Portal. At the appointment, the clinician will ask you about your sexual activity to determine which tests are appropriate for you (blood, urine, swab, etc). The tests will be done right after the appointment at the lab in the basement of HUHS, and the lab will bill HUHS directly regardless of what insurance plan the student has, so their parents will not be informed. Results will be confidential and returned within 3-5 days.
Your clinician will prescribe the appropriate medication, like antibiotics or antivirals. These often come in the form of a pill or shot. Even if medication can’t completely cure it, it can limit the length and severity of the symptoms. This is also true for HIV, which many people have heard a lot about. There are effective medications available that limit the symptoms of HIV.
At SHARC, we like to divide birth control into three categories.
Barrier methods: These methods involve a barrier that physically blocks the sperm from reaching the egg. Examples of barrier contraceptive methods include the external and internal condoms, the diaphragm, the sponge, and the copper IUD.
Hormonal methods: These methods contain hormones which regulate the menstrual cycle and make it difficult for a pregnancy to occur. Examples of hormonal contraceptives include the pill, the shot, the patch, and hormonal IUDs.
Behavioral methods: These methods involve modifying one's behavior to lower the chances of pregnancy. Examples include withdrawal/pulling out, the rhythm method (tracking your menstrual cycle), and abstinence. Behavioral methods can be difficult to maintain and may not be as effective as barrier and hormonal methods (with the exception of abstinence), so in most cases we recommend using them only as a supplement to a barrier or hormonal method.
The intrauterine device is a small, T-shaped device made of flexible plastic. Those available in the U.S. contain either copper or progesterone. The copper IUD causes an immune response which makes the uterus hostile to sperm and disrupts the formation of fertilizable ova. The hormonal IUDs thicken cervical mucus and inhibit sperm motility and function. IUDs are available by prescription only, and are inserted into the uterus by a clinician.
Harvard's Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance covers many contraceptive options including the pill and the IUD. You can make an appointment with your clinician to discuss which options might work best for you; everyone has different preferences regarding birth control, and every body may react differently to various types of birth control. Many forms of birth control, especially hormonal methods, also require a prescription. However, external and internal condoms are available for free at SHARC and many other places around campus!
Plan B or the "morning after pill" is emergency contraception, meaning that if unprotected sex occurs for any reason, this pill can be taken to reduce one's chance of pregnancy. Plan B is effective if taken less than 5 days after the sexual encounter in question, but is more effective the sooner it's taken. There's also another form of emergency contraception called "ella" that can be taken within 5 days after unprotected sex without a decline in efficacy. Plan B is offered at a deeply discounted rate of $15 at the HUHS pharmacy for all Harvard students. ella is only available with a prescription.
If you've had a positive pregnancy test, you will be referred for an OB/GYN appointment, and you will be given a pelvic exam and a prescription for prenatal vitamins. You have about 1-2 months to choose between termination and continuation of the pregnancy. A HUHS clinician will discuss your relationship status, support systems, and pregnancy plans with you, and you will be referred to optional counseling at Counseling and Mental Health Services to further support you in the process. OB/GYN care at HUHS is provided by Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and is covered under SHIP (the Harvard student insurance plan).
At Harvard, undergraduate parents cannot live in dorms with their children; you will have to live off-campus if you choose to keep the child. Pregnancy counselors at HUHS will direct you to housing resources.
Your OB/GYN at HUHS can contact adoption agencies. Ideally, the adoption process begins in the 20-24th week of pregnancy, although all agencies will work with an individual at any stage in the pregnancy, or even after delivery.
At HUHS: If you decide to terminate your pregnancy, your HUHS clinician will ask you about any personal safety concerns (your history of personal violence). The clinician will also ask you if you have considered alternatives to abortion, then you will be given a referral (HUHS does not perform abortions). The abortion procedure will appear on your permanent HUHS medical record. Two weeks after your abortion, you must attend a follow-up appointment with your clinician, where you will discuss recovery and contraception options for the future.
Outside of HUHS: You can also seek an abortion without going through HUHS, though you would not be able to receive the $350 voucher (see next question). We recommend Planned Parenthood for abortion services and referrals.
The SHIP does cover abortions. For students on private insurance, they should contact their insurance provider to find out if an abortion will be covered. If not, or if the student does not wish to contact their insurance provider, HUHS will provide a $350 voucher toward the cost of the abortion.