June 17, 2024, Durham, NC – Over the past few years, iRT researchers have been conducting the Community College Health Study to learn more about how to promote the sexual and relationship health of community college students. Over 1,500 students and 50 faculty, staff, and administrators from community colleges across the United States are participating in the Community College Health Study. Findings from the study are being used to examine sexual health programming to enhance student health and prevent sexual assault, as well as to help community college personnel find ways to promote the well-being of their students.

As part of the study, some community college students were randomly assigned to take iRT’s comprehensive, web-based, media literacy education-based sex education course called Media Aware, and other students received a parallel version of the course called Health Aware that had the same information, but did not include media literacy education. A third group received no sex education programming as part of the study. Students completed questionnaires to report about their attitudes and beliefs about sex and relationships as well as their sexual health behaviors before and after the training (or at the same time interval for students in the control group). Findings from the questionnaires are providing important insight into how sexual health education affects the ways college students think about sex and relationships.

Data analyses are currently underway. To assess their attitudes toward risky sex, students rated the extent to which they agreed with a number of statements, including: “It is okay to use alcohol or drugs before or during a sexual encounter.” Preliminary results reveal that students who completed the Media Aware sex education course reported less favorable attitudes toward risky sexual behaviors than students who did not complete a sex education course as part of the study.

In addition, students who completed Media Aware also reported having higher confidence in practicing some safe sex behaviors compared to students who did not receive sex education. For example, students who took Media Aware reported more agreement with the following statement than students who did not: “I can use a dental dam correctly or explain to my partner how to use a dental dam.”

The Media Aware program encourages students to think critically about how media can normalize unhealthy sexual behaviors. When media make unhealthy sexual behaviors seem common or “normal,” young people may be more likely to engage in those risky behaviors. Media Aware challenges the unhealthy and unrealistic messaging in media by providing students with facts about how many of their peers actually report engaging in risky sexual behaviors and teaching students to critically analyze media messages. Our preliminary results show that, compared to students who did not receive sex education programming, students who took Media Aware as part of the Community College Health Study reported that they thought a lower percentage of their peers have engaged in risky sexual health behaviors, such as having unprotected sex or having sex while high on drugs or intoxicated.

These findings demonstrate the importance of providing high-quality, comprehensive sex education to community college students to promote healthy beliefs and attitudes about sex and relationships. If you are interested in offering the Media Aware program to students to help them form healthier beliefs about sexual and relationship health and feel more confident in their abilities to practice safe sex behaviors, visit https://mediaawarecollegeprograms.com/ for more information.

Analyses are ongoing! Interested in staying up to date on what we find? iRT shares findings from the Community College Health Study and helpful resources to promote student health in the Community College Health Study newsletter. To start receiving our newsletter, visit https://cchealthstudy.com/results/#newsletter-form to sign up.