If there’s one thing that movies get right about college, it’s that people have sex.
In fact, in one study published in the Review of General Psychology, over 60 percent of college students in North America reported having some kind of sexual “hookup” experience.
But of course, there’s the other 40 percent. For any number of reasons, like religious commitments, sexual orientations or medical circumstances, many people choose not to have sex, or to simply wait. But for those of you who choose to be sexually active, you’ll find yourself sooner or later in the heat of the moment — and hopefully your parents prepared you for it with a typical “birds and the bees” conversation.
Or maybe you’ve had open conversations with more knowledgeable friends or even sought out resources about safe sex from sources such as Go Ask Alice, a Columbia University online portal for health education with a comprehensive section on sexual health.
But if you’re like any of the 23 percent of students that received an abstinence-only sex education in public high school, you might simply not know what to do.
At a time when the culture around sex is progressing — in the early 1970s, only 29 percent of adult Americans approved of premarital sex, compared to the 58 percent in 2012 that said it was “not wrong at all” — the conversation around sex must progress too.
The first place to start is way before the bedroom, whether that means discussing contraceptive options with your doctor or becoming familiar with yourself and your sexuality. When you find yourself with a partner, however, the theme of every encounter needs to be consent.
Everyone’s preferences and boundaries must be respected, and consent must be present throughout the entire encounter. Whether it’s with a long-term partner or someone you met just hours earlier, if the answer is no, then the answer is no.
But this conversation must include more than a simple yes or no question. After first establishing consent, both parties must agree on the types of protection used — a conversation that ensures a safe and pleasurable experience for all parties.
And protection goes far beyond reducing the risk of pregnancy — all sexual encounters run the risk of transmitting sexually transmitted infections. Male condoms, female condoms and latex dental dams all reduce the risk of transmitting STIs between sexual partners.
If you’ve decided to use condoms to reduce the risk of pregnancy — which you should, given that they’re 98 percent effective in reducing both the risk of pregnancy and STIs if used properly — you can get some for free at Pitt’s Student Health Center, located in Nordenberg Hall.
But condoms aren’t for everyone, and in reality, not everyone uses them. Only 60 percent of teenagers report using condoms regularly, and one of the primary reasons is due to a reduction in pleasure. Other people simply prefer alternative forms of protection.
What’s most important is to have clear communication with potential sexual partners about the type of contraception you will use. All partners are equally responsible for considering and acquiring contraception. Condoms and dental dams, which are the only methods of protection that reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, should always be used with new sexual partners if you’re unsure if they’ve been tested for STIs. But there are many other forms of pregnancy prevention available for women, ranging from the 91 percent effective birth control pill to the 99 percent effective intrauterine device. Planned Parenthood even has an online quiz available that tells you what kind of birth control is best for you.
Once you’ve covered your contraceptive bases and know that the encounter will be safe and consensual, it’s time to hit the sheets. This is where the fun can begin — since you’ve established a norm of open communication, you have the chance to explain and explore your and your partner’s preferences. While exploring, it’s absolutely necessary that consent is continually obtained and each party’s boundaries are respected. But remember — the entire experience should be enjoyable for all parties, whether it’s your first or umpteenth time in bed.
And if it’s not, having open communication allows you to put an end to anything you’re not comfortable with. It may seem awkward at first, but asserting boundaries of respect for each other will make conversations about preferences seem like a natural progression.
Since you’re at Pitt now, there are plenty of resources available to you to facilitate healthy sexual experiences. The Student Health Center has much more than just condoms available, including everything from birth control and IUD prescriptions to testing for common STIs and HIV.
But many don’t have positive sexual experiences in college, particularly women. Approximately one in five women report being sexually assaulted while at college, compared to one in 20 men. If you or someone you know is sexually assaulted, Student Health Services provides assessments for the various risks associated, as well as referrals to mental health specialists to help survivors deal with this trauma.
Thankfully, these resources are at every Pitt student’s disposal. In tandem with open channels of communication with your partners, taking advantage of them allows you to direct your sexual experience positively. And by making open communication the norm, you can do your part to change the conversation around sex to better educate and empower our generation.
Christian primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.
Write to Christian at firstname.lastname@example.org.