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Great Sexpectations

Mini-fridge and alarm clock—check. New notebooks, highlighters and laptop—check. Value-pack of condoms and sensual massage oil—slow down! It’s true that lots of college students are sexually active. But many decide to abstain. So where do you fall on the sexual spectrum? When it comes to sex, what are college students really doing—and doing about it?

Everybody’s hooking up—aren’t they?

Your college years coincide with a time when, given your age and vitality, you’re likely to be exploring your sexuality and are curious about experimenting. If you believe what you see in the movies, get real. College isn’t a big orgy with students bed-hopping more often than they change classes. The reality is, most undergrads wouldn’t be able to concentrate on academics if they were really hooking up so often. In fact, in a 2005 study of four universities, conducted by Scholly, Katz, Gascoigne and Holck, 80 percent of college students reported having no more than one sexual partner in the previous year. Yet they believed only 22 percent of their peers had similar experiences. The bottom line? Students often overestimate the frequency and level of their peers’ sexual experiences.

If friends say they’re hooking up, keep in mind its different meanings: to some, intercourse; to others, oral sex or just a make-out session. Invariably, though, hooking up is a casual encounter, and for many, these encounters replace dating. The result? Instead of forming enduring relationships, some students prefer a series of brief and meaningless flings. While you might say you can do without the emotional side of sex, it’s hard to connect on an intimate level and be otherwise disconnected from your partner as a person. For these reasons, some students wait to have sex until their object of desire becomes an actual boyfriend or girlfriend—or forego sex entirely. So if you’re not hooking up, you’re not so different—because not everybody’s doing it.

Show and tell.

Whatever your chosen level of emotional intensity, how in touch are you with what others think, do and say? Many college students believe they already know everything there is to know about sex. While it’s true that they’ve been bombarded with information on safe sex, they still have a lot to learn. You know you should use a condom, but what’s the danger of forgetting or being pressured to go without? The 2005 study showed that among sexually active students, fewer than 40 percent reported consistent use and many didn’t use condoms at all in the previous month. Aside from the surprising fact that many students don’t know the correct way to put on a condom, the need to express one’s sexual desire often conflicts with the need to demand an open and honest exchange. So talk. Negotiate that fine line between spontaneity and protection. If you and your partner are confident enough to share an intimate moment, respect each other’s right to avoid unintended pregnancy and to protect reproductive and general health.

You usually can’t tell if someone has an STI (sexually transmitted infection). Even if your potential partner looks healthy, the only way to be sure is to have an honest discussion. You don’t need to be in love to act lovingly towards another human being. You and your partner must be equally willing to demonstrate that you have either been tested or are willing to use protection. Take HPV (human papillomavirus): It’s one of the most widespread infections among college students, often with no visible symptoms. Yet it’s linked to cervical cancer in women. Even if women have been vaccinated, the safest bet is to use a condom. The HIV infection that causes AIDS has scared a lot of people over the last two decades. But there’s no vaccine and in the heat of the moment, there’s no time to present test results. Whatever the STI, and these are just two in the list of bad bugs that have long plagued humanity, you know the rules, so use the tools. And hard as it is to do, you could just sit this one out. Saying “not this time” may be the healthiest option.

I’m shy and could use a little attitude adjustment.

Many people view drinking as a great prelude to sex—it makes them less inhibited and more willing to do things they wouldn’t normally do. But when it comes to passionate acts, alcohol rarely enhances sexual experience. It’s a depressant. It dulls your sensations and restricts blood flow to the genitals. Certainly you know that its use alters your judgment. Several studies substantiate connections between alcohol use and high-risk sexual behavior, assault and victimization. Aside from the illegality of underage and on-campus drinking, it’s sad that so many view alcohol as a sexual aid. Once you rely on a few shots before getting into bed, you might end up feeling sexually inhibited when you’re sober.

Yearning and learning.

This isn’t meant to be a “how-to” manual, but one thing we leave you with is the notion that relating to others in a sexual way takes practice and patience. There’s a false assumption among some that when it comes to sex, college-age students instinctively know how to give pleasure to their partners. Truth be told, our bodies are mysterious and unique, not “plug ‘n play” electronics with pre-programmed media and automatic spell-check. By choosing an academic path, you’ve committed to expanding your horizons, especially when it comes to acquiring tools and learning to use them. Sexual growth is kind of like that, too. Your academic path includes learning the vocabulary of a profession: not just what to say but how to say it. The best way to ensure a good experience is through developing communication skills. Expect to tell your partner what you desire but listen to your partner’s wishes, too. If your partner needs encouragement to express his or her mind, do what good teachers do: Ask and listen! If you’re mature enough to be having sex, you’re mature enough to understand that the primary definition of “intercourse” is communication.

When it comes to sex, what’s “normal” is what feels right to you. There’s no need to lie or exaggerate about your level of experience. Having sex doesn’t make you cool; being cool with yourself makes you cool. Sex can be a pleasurable experience that helps you learn about yourself and connect with others. Make the decision when its right for you.

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