As parents, most likely we have discussed sex and sexual health with our children as they have grown, instilling our values and expectations and sharing our concerns along the way.
Ultimately, our students are on their own as they face the decision of whether or not to become sexually active. We hope first and foremost that our sons and daughters make choices that keep them and others safe and healthy.
As a mother, I have always tried to keep the dialogue open about safe sex, even when it felt uncomfortable. A large part of that conversation has included self respect and respect for others’ bodies, minds, and hearts. I became a mother in college, having my son during sophomore year. My kids both know their father and I had to make some tough choices and had to grow up quickly. We would not change it for the world, but it wasn’t easy, and our decision to have our child charted a path for our lives unlike what we (or our own parents) had imagined. Whether physical, emotional, or spiritual, the decision to engage in sex has consequences.
Trends and statistics regarding sexual activity among young adults can provide context for the kinds of conversations we may want to have with our students now. According to a May 2014 fact sheet on sexual and reproductive health, “On average, young people have sex for the first time at about age seventeen, but they do not marry until their mid-twenties” (Guttmacher Institute). A statistic from the Rolling Stone article “Tales from the Millennials’ Sexual Revolution” supports this notion, finding that of adults ages 18–29, only 20 percent are married today in contrast with 59 percent in 1960 (Morris, 2014).
There has been a lot of discussion and many articles written about the “hookup culture” on college campuses, a term that brings to mind casual sexual activity with many partners. A feature in USA TODAY titled “More College ‘Hookups,’ But More Virgins, Too” suggests that the nature of sex and relationships among students has been changing due to an increased female-to-male ratio, media-influenced attitudes, and a declining interest in making relationship commitments at a young age.
However, on the flip side are observations that virginity is on the rise on campuses. In other words, we can generalize about student behavior but reality is more complex. Many students never “hook up” while others may “hook up” (or “hang out”) regularly with the same person…which used to be considered a “relationship” (even if a casual one). For a scholarly explanation of hookup culture, read more here.
How can you support your student’s sexual health in college? Begin by learning about the programs and resources available at your student’s school. Because sexual health encompasses multiple facets of identity and experience — bodily integrity, safety, healthy relationships, gender, sexual orientation, and reproductive choice — sexual health resources typically span several campus departments and may include the student health center, counseling and psychological services, student government, the office of victim assistance, LGBTQ services, and offices of discrimination and harassment.
As you may already know, parents are not able to receive confidential information about their student if the student is, for example, seeing a campus health care provider unless the student has signed a medical release form. However, should you have concerns about your student, it is possible to call a campus provider to share these concerns and receive guidance about your next steps.
Even if it’s not a topic you’ve talked about in the past, it’s never too late to discuss sexual health with your student. You may know a lot about your student’s social life, or you may know next to nothing, but you can ask about what programs and events are happening on campus. Do people seem to date, or not so much? Before you know it, you may find yourself involved in a meaningful conversation with your student about sexual health.
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