Relationships and Sexuality at College (page 3)
Boy Meets Girl
The ways in which many college kids meet potential partners are changing, and this alone can be stressful for students. It would be nice if your son fell for his physics lab partner and spent his evenings at the library with her doing homework together, but that's not the way it usually happens in the college dating scene. Today many students are clubbing, taking drugs like Ecstasy, going on spontaneous "booty runs" (sex dates), and partying until dawn.
These students are very intelligent young people, but they often have unrealistic feelings about the potential impact of their behavior. Some think they're invulnerable or at least don't stop to consider the consequences of their actions. They have unprotected sex, don't worry about getting HIV/AIDS, and put themselves at risk for contracting more than twenty other sexually transmitted diseases that affect some 3 million teenagers in the United States every year.
Today's college kids have heard all the lectures about club drugs, date rape, and safer sex, but many do not think it applies to them until they face the fallout. When college students face date rape, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy, abortion, or any of the other negative consequences of careless sex, they are unlikely to look to their parents for help. They had been warned about the dangers of these behaviors, and now they feel stupid and worried. Once their emotional or physical health is compromised by the consequences and disappointments of their sexuality, they find it extremely difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. Some flounder or drop out.
We are all bombarded by the media with the message that casual recreational sex is the norm. But many students come to college having limited experience with their sexuality and are surprised to hear their peers boasting of their latest sexual conquests. They often feel pressure to be sexually active as a way to find intimacy and a sense of connection in a new environment.
For students whose families have stressed abstinence, this contrast and pressure is even more severe. Because the number one goal of new college students is to establish connections, many find it hard to say no to sex without worrying that they will be isolated. Because they believe that "everybody is doing it," they are more likely to "do it" too, but then may feel terrible for betraying their own beliefs and their family's trust.
The striking data about perceived sexual behaviors versus actual sexual behaviors fuel the myth. A National College Health Association survey of 29,230 college students in 2002 points out how strongly the "everybody's doing it" mentality is entrenched in these young people. The survey found that the students' perception of peer sexual behavior was not on track with reality. The surveyed students assumed that only 2 percent of their peers were not sexually active, yet the reality was that 24 percent of their peer group who responded to the survey fit that classification as sexually inactive. They also assumed that 85 percent of their peers had had two or more sexual partners, but the reported data found the actual percentage to be a much smaller 28 percent.3 These distortions of fact push college kids to bend to peer pressure that in reality doesn't even exist"but they don't know that.
The Link Between Alcohol, Sex, and Emotional Disorders
There is a persistent link between alcohol abuse and sexuality on college campuses. These young adults are anxious about being sexual, and so they drink to relax and lower their inhibition level. But this frequently leads to unwelcome trouble.
Females especially face negative consequences when mixing alcohol and sex. One study found that 50 percent of the females involved in college campus acquaintance rapes had been drinking when the sexual assault occurred.
Unable to talk to their families about this life-altering situation, many young women try to handle the guilt, pregnancy, or abortion alone and suffer tremendous emotional pain. Some drink even more to stop feeling so bad. (See Chapter Three for more information on date rape.)
Men too sometimes suffer emotional pain when mixing alcohol and sex, but for very different reasons. Under the influence of alcohol, men may have difficulty getting and maintaining an erection. When they start to worry about performance, the problem compounds itself (the brain, after all, is the largest "sex" organ). The problem then becomes associated with shame, embarrassment, and fear. Men especially have great difficulty talking about their fear of sexual failure, and this fear soon becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A common problem in college relationships is the different views that men and women have about the meaning of their sexuality. For many women, there is a heightened expectation of intimacy following the beginning of a sexual relationship. They are more likely than men to have sex with a partner they expect to have a long-term relationship with. They often assume that sex signals a commitment.
Some young men, in contrast, have very strong libidos but fears of intimacy and commitment. They may not be looking for a long-term relationship and expect that their females partners feel the same, though they often don't.
These are clearly stereotypes, but they are common occurrences and causes of tension and disappointment for both males and females.
Female Sexuality and Body Image
Like their male partners, women too struggle with a fear of sexual failure, but their form of failure is quite different. Society gives females the message that in order to be attractive to the opposite sex, they must be pencil thin. In 1984, the decidedly unscientific Glamour magazine conducted a survey through the department of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati that asked thirty-three thousand women of college age questions about their body image. The survey found that only 25 percent of these women felt comfortable with their bodies; 75 percent felt they were physically flawed. And 96 percent said that their weight affected how they felt about themselves. Glamour repeated the survey in 1998 and found that "far from making progress, we actually lost ground."
Your daughter may be taking this kind of body image with her to college. With this negative self-image, she is at risk for suffering anxiety, depression, or an eating disorder if her attempts to form an intimate relationship are not immediately successful. (These symptoms of college stress are explained in detail in Chapter Four.)
The Male Body Image
Don't overlook the possibility that your son may have body image problems that can lead to depression, anxiety, or eating disorders. Young men too are subject to societal pressures to be "hunks" and to have "six-pack" abs. There are plenty of males putting in excessive hours in the gym and following ritualistic diets in their drive to calm their insecurities about personal appearance.
Confusion over Sexual Orientation
Concerns over sexual orientation frequently rise to the surface during the college years and cause intense emotional pain, often unnecessarily. Sexual experimentation is quite common in this age group; for some, experimenting sexually with friends of the same sex is nothing more than satisfaction of a curiosity.
My colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health and researchers at the Center for Health Policy Studies in Washington found that 20.8 percent of American men and 17.8 percent of women surveyed reported homosexual behavior or attraction. Considering that only about 10 percent of the population define themselves as homosexual, these numbers show that many heterosexuals experiment with a same-sex relationship, and some define themselves as bisexual. But still, the experience can upset the fragile sexual identity of some, causing severe anxiety.
Other college students will discover, perhaps for the first time, that they are homosexual. A person's reaction to this awareness can vary from relief, to finally feeling at peace with one's sexuality, to horror at the thought of the reaction from family and friends. A student who reacts with fear and upset is at great risk for emotional distress. In fact, the frequency of depression and suicide attempts is much higher among homosexual students"not due to the sexual preference itself but to the reactions of family and societal pressures that accompany this label.
Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) promotes the health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons and their families through support, education, and advocacy. The organization has 450 chapters and affiliates in communities across the United States. For more information, log on to the Web site at www.pflag.org
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