What College Freshmen Need To Know About Sex and Relationships On Campus

This fall, 20.2 million incoming college freshmen will begin learning the essentials at their campuses. Perhaps these young scholars (the majority of whom will be female) will study the classics, or economics; maybe they'll dabble in pottery. But it is almost guaranteed that they're going to at least think about hooking up with their collegiate peers. 

For incoming freshmen, navigating the social scene on campus can be tricky. Much of what is written about the "hookup culture", the so-called reality of college dating, is contradictory. Young women are told that their peers are chill with hooking up, but they are also told that this casual attitude towards sexuality has killed the concept of courtship. There's a lot of talk about the number of freshman-aged people who have had sex — 61 percent of 18-year-olds and 71 percent of 19-year-olds — but when the numbers are broken down, students today aren't having anymore sex than they were in the '80s or '90s. Additional studies reveal that ninety-one percent of students think hooking up is ingrained in college culture, despite the reality that not many people are actually hooking up frequently. Sex and relationships are complicated enough without having to sort through so much hype. 

Stephanie Amada is an assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures as well as a faculty member of the Center for Gender in Global Context at Michigan State University. She is the author of Hooking Up: A Sexy Encounter With Choice and is launching a podcast on the subject later this fall. This summer, she held a workshop for women who had recently graduated from high school and their guardians, acting as as sort of prep class for the college social scene. Speaking about her inspiration for creating the workshop, Amada said, "One of my students said to me a couple of years ago, they prepare us to do well academically in our classes, but they don't prepare us at all for what we're going to see socially." 

Amada gave Bustle five solid pieces of advice for incoming freshman on how to navigate the sexual and romantic culture of their new colleges. But the reality is that these are important things to remember at any stage of your life. 

1. Have An Open Dialogue With Your Peers 

"What got me interested in researching hookup culture is hearing from my college students how much pressure there is to simultaneously be sexy, be desirable, and not be virginal. But then also to not have too much sex, because then you're labeled a slut," says Amada. "The contrast is that for men to not desire sex when it's offered, that's what is shameful. I think that is still problematic." 

Amada stresses that men and women should openly discuss this dichotomy and the pressures they encounter. She has found that in her own classroom, many male students are unaware of the pressure women feel to be constantly aware of one's surroundings and be vigilant against predators. "The men in my class say, 'Wow, I had no idea,'" says Amada. "It is enlightening for everyone. And I think talking to your peers is helpful in that it can help with the myth that you're the only one who has questions." 

Open dialogue between male and female students doesn't just create for a more understanding space; it can also serve to dispel some seriously dangerous gender norms. In a 2011 study, 273 undergraduates analyzed a story about a heterosexual hookup followed by a sexless first date. When asked to describe the cause for the lack of sex, the majority of students responded that, "the woman was being chaste and withholding sex to redeem her reputation, whereas they often characterized the man's abstinence in terms of a pity date." The study's authors were forced to conclude that although women can find pleasure in hookups, a double standard regarding what they are expected to get out of it still persists. The double standard faced by men and women is beyond archaic and fair to neither sex. Conversation is needed to pick it apart. 

2. There's Nothing Shameful About Sex

"I think we need to look at shame culturally. It's not just something that happens to women, but we see it particularly assigned to women," says Amada. "Women can be shamed for having sex but women are also shamed for being a prude or a virgin. Don't be ashamed. Make your decision. If your decision is to spend the night with somebody, when you go home the next day, don't feel ashamed about it." 

Shame has been thought of as a particularly female issue far too often and for far too long, and has been inserted into phrases like "walk of shame" to police female sexual behavior. Forget that. Being a virgin is absolutely fine, and having consensual, safe sex with whom you please is fine, too. 

3. It's Okay To Catch Feelings  

"My students say they don't want to catch feelings. Which I laugh about because it's like, what is it, a disease?" says Amada. "You can't catch feelings. You can have them. If you do have them, it's okay. It's okay to tell the person, while that is very scary. But the point is, tell the person because one, they may have feelings too, and two, if that makes them leave, then in the long run that's better. Because if you're developing feelings for someone, which is totally natural and normal if you're having sex with them, and you don't tell them because you don't want them to leave, it's just going to get more painful." 

Speaking up and telling someone you don't want to just hookup isn't merely good for the heart — it's a wise investment of your time. Studies show that your friends-with-benefits deal is not likely to turn into a monogamous relationship — only 10 to 20 percent of FWB relationships ever become exclusive, despite the fact that 25 percent of men and 40 percent of women involved in them are hoping for that change in relationship status. 

4. Unwanted Sexual Contact Is Never Your Fault

A recent survey focused on sexual assault and misconduct — one of the largest ever conducted — revealed that 23 percent of female college students have experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact. This ranges from unwanted kissing to rape, and the numbers are even higher at some of the top-rated academic schools in the U.S. — 32 percent at Yale and 29 percent at Harvard. Yet despite the obvious fact that unwanted sexual contact is a societal epidemic, victim-blaming still persists. One example: in a 2007 study, participants were asked the level of responsibility a female rape victim had in a fictional scenario. "Results indicated that the responsibility ratings given to the victim varied by the presence of alcohol," said the authors. "If the female target had been drinking, she was judged as being more responsible for the assault than if she had not been drinking." 

That sort of opinion, Amada says, is unacceptable. "When rape happens, the only person who fault it is, is the rapist," she says. "For all kinds of situations we can make choices that can potentially minimize our vulnerability, but if someone takes advantage of that vulnerability, that's not your fault." 

5. Respect What You Want 

The purpose of writing her book, Amada says, was to give the message that one should not succumb to peer, media, or even parental pressure when it comes to hooking up. What is most important is that each individual woman does what makes sense for her for in regards to how she wants to live. This extends past one's personal decisions, to communicating what one wants to the person they are seeing intimately.

"It is helpful to talk about what you want and I think people are afraid to do that," says Amada. "Because they are afraid that if they say what they really want, their person is going to leave. And here is the key: sometimes that will happen. But that is okay. Because if that happens, that means that wasn't the right person for you." 

Images: Pexels; Giphy (5)


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