How to Help First-Year College Students Be Sexually Smarter
By Melanie Davis
Many parents will spend the next few months packing college dorm-bound boxes with bed linens, ramen noodles, and laundry soap. I hope they will also include condoms, dams, and personal lubricant; a book on sexuality; and encouragement to make smart sexual decisions as well as smart academic choices.
A few years ago, a college first-year and Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education program graduate told me: “Living in a dorm gives you a live lesson in how STIs (sexually transmitted infections) can spread. In the first week, one person on my floor slept with four people!”
A parent may consider their live-away college freshman a newly minted adult, but, biologically, teens remain in adolescence until about age 25. While their brains are still developing, they are more likely to take risks, use poor impulse control, and be self-conscious. These are all risk factors for unhealthy sexual decisions.
But, there is good news: College offers a time of great learning, exploration, and social development, all of which contribute to healthy sexuality.
Parents often warn their children to “stay safe” or “be smart” about college drinking and sex, but I have yet to meet a student whose parents taught them how to negotiate sexual activity in a sexually healthy, non-coercive way. Every 21 hours, a rape occurs on a college campus in the U.S. All of those rapes were committed by someone’s child, against someone else’s child.
As a professor of undergraduate Human Sexuality, I've observed that each class has several students who:
- regret at least a few of their sexual decisions;
- have not engaged in sexual intercourse;
- have sexual health concerns;
- wonder whether or how to disclose their sexual identity;
- are in abusive relationships;
- are having sex that, while consensual, isn’t pleasurable;
- have experienced their own, a partner’s, or a friend’s unintended pregnancy;
- aren’t sure whether they’ve been coerced or assaulted, due to excessive drinking;
- aren’t sure whether they’ve sexually coerced or assaulted someone.
Use the time before college starts to educate about healthy sexual behavior. Say it unequivocally: Sexual activity should never occur unless a potential partner gives enthusiastic, on-going consent while clear-headed, that is, not pressured, drunk, drugged, or cognitively/developmentally impaired in any way.
Other ways you can help prepare a sexually smart, new college student:
- Encourage your young person to schedule a physical exam with their primary care provider. This is a good opportunity for them to find out about protection against STIs and unintended pregnancy. Prior to the visit, discuss whether you’re OK with your family insurance coverage being used for contraceptives and STI screenings.
- Tour the campus health center together or encourage your young person to visit early in the semester, before they need help. Kurt Conklin, an instructional specialist at Montclair State University, says “Obtaining preventive sexual health services will feel more routine if your young adult has prior acquaintance with how to use the health service. You can sit with them at a computer and do a dress rehearsal of how to schedule an appointment online or by phone.“
- Buy sex books when you buy textbooks. Good resources for college students include Our Bodies, Ourselves: A New Edition for a New Era, 4th edition, by Judy Norsigian and Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (New York: Touchstone, 2011); Guide To Getting It On, 8th edition, by Paul Joannides ( Waldport, OR: Goofy Foot Press, 2015); S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, by Heather Corinna (Boston, MA: De Capo Press,2007).
Iman Messado, 18, a staff writer for the popular Sex, Etc. website, tells new college students, "Besides checking out Sex, Etc., I think it's good to know that you have all the time in the world to be sexually active. Hooking up might be a prominent part of the stereotypical college experience, but you still have to deal with the possible consequences. If you really do want to be sexually active, go ahead! Only, be as safe as you can: use condoms, contraceptives, get tested for STIs, etc."
- Encourage your young person to locate a Unitarian Universalist congregation near their campus and ask whether they offer Our Whole Lives Sexuality Education for Young Adults. Use Find a Congregation on the UUA website home page.
- With your young person, watch sexuality educator Al Vernacchio’s TEDTalk offering a new way to think about sexual decision making. Forget baseball metaphors; bring on the pizza!
- Discuss with your young person what they can do if they or a friend is sexually assaulted. Many colleges have specially trained advisers for this purpose. NotAlone.gov lists resources in every state.
About the Blogger
Melanie Davis is the Our Whole Lives Program Associate in the Faith Development Office of the Unitarian Universalist Association.