When Rachel* arrived on campus as a freshman, she walked out of a three-year relationship and into the college dating scene.
“It was eye-opening,” she says. “For the first few months, I was so excited to finally be single that I was going to parties, going to The Keg and hooking up all the time.”
Rachel says she was always safe when having sexual encounters with people she didn’t know very well. She never contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or infection (STI) or became pregnant.
Behavior like Rachel’s is not uncommon at Northwestern. North by Northwestern took an unscientific poll of 100 students at Norris University Center whose results suggest that although recreational hook-ups are widespread at Northwestern, students are being safe during sexual encounters. Sexual Health and Peer Educators (SHAPE) representatives say that despite this, Northwestern still has a lot to learn about safe sex.
The poll indicates that sexually active students prefer condoms to the pill and rely more on those two methods than on any other form of birth control. Of the students polled, none have contracted STDs or STIs or undergone an unwanted pregnancy. The students polled have hooked up (defined as any sexual activity outside of a relationship, from kissing to sex) with an average of 5.25 partners.
Communication senior George Gianakakos, recruitment co-chair for SHAPE, describes the “hook-up culture” at Northwestern as an attractive alternative to serious relationships for busy students.
“Northwestern girls are goal-oriented, driven to succeed no matter what, and they have to sacrifice relationships in order to achieve those goals,” Giankakos says. “But girls at NU are also better about birth control and know more about, say, Plan B or where to go to get an abortion. These things have crossed their mind if they’re sexually active.”
SHAPE student director and Communication junior Max Potter agrees that students tend to “hook up” more than they date, and the results of the poll reflect this: 25 percent of students are in relationships. “Northwestern students are very busy, but they’re still horny 20-somethings,” Potter says.
Gianakakos says that from his perspective, students are generally aware of how to have safe sex and why it’s important. “Most of my frat brothers are pretty good about the whole condom thing,” Gianakakos said. “It makes me feel good, like someone’s doing their job if not SHAPE.”
However, Gianakakos and Potter both say Northwestern students still aren’t perfect when it comes to being safe.
Of students polled, two-thirds reported that they used condoms every time they had sex. In 2009, Northwestern was ranked 88th by Trojan Condoms Sexual Health Report Card, which places schools in order of sexual health awareness.
“That doesn’t sound bad, but it is,” Potter says. “People don’t realize the risks associated with the hook-up culture.”
Cassing Hammond, Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Feinberg School of Medicine, says that half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and half of those end in abortion. “Not all women feel empowered to insist on safe sex,” Hammond says. “Adolescent women can feel disempowered, feel a need to please and don’t mandate safer sex practices.”
SHAPE assistant director and Communication senior Christie Stiehl says that the only way to get people to practice safe sex is to create a “sex-positive” environment. “In college, when you have people of varied backgrounds, some people have had sex-ed since kindergarten and some have never learned how to put on a condom,” she says. “Sex needs to be talked about more. The right information needs to be out there.”
Potter agrees, saying that people shouldn’t be afraid to ask the questions they need answers to. “As a 20-year-old, the last thing you want to do is go to Searle and talk to a 70-year-old about herpes,” she said. “That’s why SHAPE exists.”
Rachel says that eventually she stopped hooking up with casual acquaintances as frequently as she did during her freshman year. “One day, I looked back on all the people I’d hooked up with and I scared myself,” she says. “Just the fact that I had to think about whether or not I was pregnant or had an STD was enough to make me realize that that’s not what being single is about.”
*Name has been changed.