Sex in college (and why getting older and busier changes everything)

    You wake up, staring at the ceiling, calculating the minutes until it’s polite to leave. Your clothes are around here… somewhere. You sneak around, trying to collect your garments as quietly as possible. Then you’re out the door, into the sunlight, leaving with maybe a goodbye and some vague promise to “hang out soon.” Whatever that means.

    Yes, it’s the college hook-up, that little hobby that still has the grown-ups just shocked (shocked!) and terribly concerned for our emotional well-being. Maybe they’re right, and this is going to destroy our ability to ever form meaningful relationships and we’ll all die alone and unloved, surrounded by cats. But probably not.

    The truth is, as we get older, sex simply loses a bit of its currency (kind of like our economy right now, yeah?). Casual hook-ups don’t mean we’re all emotionless robots, but they do take a little getting used to, especially in the first year at college.

    Older, wiser and less attached

    It just wasn’t like this in high school, at least not for most of us. Dating meant you put someone’s initials in your AIM profile, right next to a cute little heart and the date, two weeks ago, that you decided marked the beginning of your relationship. It’s not that sex didn’t happen when we were all impressionable little pieces of jailbait, but there was a lot less of it, and it usually happened for a reason other than “I was drunk and didn’t feel like walking home from North Campus at 3 a.m.”

    “When you’re in high school, you’re still just playing,” says Laura Sessions Stepp, the author of Unhooked, a book about young women’s attitudes toward sex and love in our newfangled hookup culture. “You’re not as likely to have actual intercourse. In college, the hookup scene becomes more about intercourse, and you’ll get there more quickly.”

    It just wasn’t like this in high school. Dating meant you put someone’s initials in your AIM profile, right next to a cute little heart.

    Hundreds of movies have tried to convince us that the high school years are the time in a young man or woman’s life when they cash in that V-card. This is sometimes true, but it’s not as common as you might think: According to a 2007 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 48 percent of high school students have had sex. Though this number climbs to more than half by senior year, Stepp says that the majority of these kids still probably haven’t done the deed more than a few times. For most of them, it’s still a big deal.

    But like any good Christmas present, the novelty of hooking up wears off eventually. You don’t cover your notebooks with hearts and the initials of the person who swapped spit with you last weekend. It’s just not that important anymore. It’s still the age of experimentation, of course — it’s just that the experiment has changed from “will she let me take her pants off?” to “would she be okay with a threesome?”

    “High school groups tend to do a lot of heavy making-out or oral sex, but college kids will wake up, put on some pajama bottoms and walk home across the freshman dorm,” says Stepp. “You do it more, too, and that’s where dealing with emotions can start to come into play and it becomes more problematic.”

    More work, less action

    Another difference about college is simply the amount of time available to develop emotional connections with people. Sure, in high school, most of us were presidents of fifteen clubs and played seven varsity sports just so we could get into this illustrious institute of higher education. But we still had time to watch bad movies at our friends’ houses and drive around at night for lack of anything else to do. This doesn’t happen nearly as often at a college where time is usually our enemy.

    It’s not just us, though. A 2007 study by the University of Washington found that college freshmen have less sex on average than people of the same age who aren’t attending college. If you were looking to get laid every night, maybe you shouldn’t have taken the SATs that fourth time.

    “This generation of middle-class, upper-middle-class college students is occupied with so many different activities,” says Stepp. “Becoming attached means giving some time over to that person. If you’ve got papers to write and meetings, who has time for a deep attachment? The business of your lives makes you believe that you can’t afford it.”

    Ask yourself why you only feel comfortable seeing this person after a few drinks at the Keg, or why you’re always so scared of running into his or her roommate.

    But hey, independence is cool, man. We don’t need anybody and we don’t need to depend on anybody. It’s our bodies, our lives, and we can do what we want with them, right?

    Well, yeah. But also no. It’s true that one goal of the college years is growing up, finding out who you really are, and sex can be a big part of that for many of us. The idea of exploring, understanding and owning your own sexuality, however you define it, is crucial to having a comfortable and healthy attitude toward sex and, often, toward yourself. But this exploration shouldn’t compromise your decisions or judgment.

    “Freshmen, especially girls, want to meet a lot of people and they don’t want to get attached immediately,” Stepp says. “That’s fine, but if this is still your M.O. by the end of freshman year and you’re still searching for people to be friends with, it becomes a habit of being detached from other people.”

    Stepp’s book came out in 2007, and is available on Amazon for $16.47.

    Maybe you truly aren’t looking for a relationship, and if you’re aware of that and honest about it, great. You don’t have to fake emotions that aren’t there. You don’t need to care about their favorite band, or spend the whole day cuddling in bed. Just take a minute to think before you send that booty-call text. Ask yourself why you only feel comfortable seeing this person after a few drinks at the Keg, or why you’re always so scared of running into his or her roommate in the hallway.

    Have fun, but make sure you’re doing things that you enjoy, and that you’re doing them because you want to, and not because the cool kids are doing it. After all, we’re at Northwestern. None of us were cool in high school — even the ones who were getting laid.

    “You have to know yourself and what you can handle,” Stepp says. “Just think about what’s going to happen afterwards, and remember that. Listen to yourself, instead of what everyone else is doing. Tune into what feels right for you.”


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