Sex, Social Distancing and the Fall Semester

In this global pandemic, adults must get over their squeamishness about young people’s sexuality and talk about how sex figures into campus life, Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan contend.

June 22, 2020
 
 
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A recent behind-the-scenes look at the University of Kentucky’s deliberations about the fall semester revealed detailed plans for housing, dining and classes but contained only an oblique reference to students’ social and sexual lives: “Even if administrators could enforce the rules on campus … what about after hours?” The American College Health Association’s recent “Considerations for Reopening” were similarly silent on sex. And discussions of “how to approach occupancy and personal spacing in student housing” miss the point that in college, as elsewhere, beds are not just for sleeping.

In this moment of global pandemic, it’s urgent for adults to get over their squeamishness about young people’s sexuality and talk about how sex figures into campus life.

Colleges and universities are social institutions. Students see this social life -- friendships, extracurriculars and networking, and also sex -- as fundamental to the college experience. Our book, Sexual Citizens, draws on three semesters of research spending time with and interviewing undergraduates on the Columbia University and Barnard College campuses. In it, we found that students want many things out of their university experience, what we call their “college projects.” These include being introduced to challenging ideas, mastering a discipline, developing new interests and skills, meeting people from a range of backgrounds, and cultivating critical life skills. But one of the most important college projects for students is their “sexual project”: having the kinds of sexual experiences they want and discovering what sex means to them.

The students we interviewed described wide-ranging sexual projects. Sometimes, sex is about pleasure. Other times, intimacy. For many students, especially early on in college, the goals are accruing experience, impressing their friends or figuring out who they are. Sometimes sexual projects entail a lot of sex, but the sexual project can be no sex: one young man, a devout born-again Christian, saw his commitment to abstinence as a fundamental expression of his new self.

One of the reasons students arrive on campus so intent on their sexual projects is that few adults had ever asked the students with whom we spoke what sex meant to them. For many young people, home is an environment of sexual silence and shame, and college offers the promise of a space where they can express themselves. Many American parents convey to their children, “Not under my roof.” The message is clear: sex itself is immoral.

Sex education, even when it’s not abstinence-only, frequently amplifies those familial messages of shame and fear. Many students we spoke with described K-12 sex ed as “the sexual diseases class” -- a barrage of messaging about the risks of sex. While STDs are an important health concern, a focus on sex’s adverse consequences absent any discussion of sex in relation to pleasure or connection conveys the message that young people’s sexual desires are unacceptable. This is even more pronounced for queer students, whose very identities are erased by most sex ed curricula, by the unquestioned heteronormativity of high school’s prom kings and queens, and by the all-too-frequent experience of returning home every day to families where they cannot be themselves.

College and sex aren’t just tied together because they provide an escape from the silences of home. There are also developmental reasons: the average age at first intercourse in America is about 17. That means that many 18- or 19-year-olds starting college have not yet had sex, and even those who have often haven’t had much experience. Most students, imagining their own deficit, are eager to “catch up” with their peers.

If, as in Jennifer’s family, these months of social distancing have included some nostalgic parental choices for family movie night, the high school Class of 2020 may have been subjected to oldies like Grease or Risky Business. But whether it is those or other cringey classics like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Porky’s and American Pie or sleepers like Blockers or films with a more modern sensibility like Ladybird, Booksmart or Love, Simon, American movies about the end of high school have one consistent message: it is an essential time to figure out sex in order to launch into the world, finally, as an adult. Shut indoors for months, without prom, senior trip or even the mild flirting that comes with yearbook signing, the Class of 2020 is likely to feel more acutely what young people long have felt: that they are behind when it comes to sex. While they may not say it to their parents, the disappointment about an online start to the school year is at least as much about the social and sexual as it is about the educational.

Before parents roll their eyes at today’s youth, or imagine that 17 is “way too early,” they need to be honest with themselves. Young Americans today are on average older than their parents were the first time they had sex. It’s not just that they’re having sex later; it also seems likely that they’re having less of it. Even grandparents may want to check their judgement: as far back as 1959, two deans at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote, “Think of college and you think of flaming youth; think of flaming youth and you think of liquor and sex.”

A Student-Centered Approach

It’s been decades since most institutions of higher education rescinded parietals: rules about when opposite sex visitors could be in a dorm and under what kind of supervision. Those policy changes were an important recognition of students’ “sexual citizenship” -- an official, if tacit, acknowledgment of young people’s right to sexual self-determination. Now is not the time to bring those rules back under the guise of protection. Instead, we need a student-centered approach that unflinchingly faces the realities of what young people are going to be doing, and how their recent experiences are motivating those actions.

In Sexual Citizens, we use sexual projects and sexual citizenship to reveal the social roots of campus sexual assault. But the ideas have a broader application, as a framework for understanding sex on campus and as a way of thinking about what it would look like to organize sexual and social lives in relation to the common good. Sexual projects and sexual citizenship are the logical starting point for respectful dialogue between administrators and students, and among students themselves, about sex during a pandemic. We have been here before: in the early years of HIV, gay activists, advised by a virologist, published a pamphlet that “provided some of the earliest guidance on safer sex for gay men.” That approach -- acknowledging that people have compelling social reasons for behaviors that entail some health risk and engaging in candid and nonjudgmental conversation about how to make those activities safer -- is called harm reduction.

Recently, experts from Planned Parenthood, the American Sexual Health Association and Fenway Health joined the New York City and San Francisco health departments in promoting a harm reduction approach to sex during this pandemic. That entails recognizing sex as a normal part of a healthy life, reminding people that “you are your safest sexual partner” and providing guidance on how to minimize the risk of transmission for those who seek out new partners.

The take-home for institutions of higher education is clear: instead of saying, "Don’t have sex," acknowledge young people’s sexual projects and encourage them to channel those projects in socially responsible ways. The safest sex is solo or remote. Those who chose in-person sex should use condoms and other barriers and remember to wash up before and after sex. And “if you do have sex with others, have as few partners as possible.”

Higher ed leaders should remember that this is generation that has led, rather than followed, in the name of collective responsibility, with one study showing that 20 percent of millennials had changed their diet because of concerns about climate change, compared to only 8 percent of baby boomers. Conversations that explicitly connect incoming students’ sexual projects to the greater good will resonate with lessons all around them. Whether wearing masks or doing Mother’s Day, birthdays and even funerals online to protect our beloved elders, huge numbers of us, including many members of the Class of 2020, have foregone myriad small pleasures for the collective good.

This is a critical moment for rethinking and reorganizing campus sex. At least some of the students whose stories appear in Sexual Citizens, as well as some whom Lisa Wade interviewed in American Hookup, articulated substantial ambivalence about hookup culture. We think in particular about the young woman who compared getting drunk before hooking up to Novocain at the dentist -- the numbing required to get through the discomfort. This is a moment to reimagine welcoming students to college as a long process that offers an appealing range of activities through which students can get to know each other more slowly -- before or even perhaps without ever getting naked. Those activities, in combination with the moral cover provided by the need to socially distance, may offer those who want it an opportunity to step back from the notion that “doing college” necessarily means getting drunk and having sex.

Institutions have been slowly building toward a greater recognition of college students’ sexual citizenship: officially sanctioned BDSM clubs, vending-machine availability of emergency contraception, widespread campus condom availability programs and, of course, sexual assault prevention programs themselves are all acknowledgments that for many students, sex is part of campus life. In normal times, institutions need to think about how they can create environments -- reimagining everything from furniture to culture -- where those who chose to have sex can do so without harm to themselves or others. COVID-19 just amplifies this obligation.

Like professors across the country, we long to see young people back on campuses -- queuing up for office hours, lolling in the sun on the lawns, throwing down their book bags before seminar or even meticulously setting up a whole breakfast as class starts. But having spent semesters immersed in their daily lives, we know not to fool ourselves that they are only here to see us. They come for each other, and they can’t do that until and unless higher ed leaders have an honest and respectful conversation with them about how to do that safely.

That means thinking about young people as sexual citizens, talking to them about what sexual projects are valuable and creating geographies of experience that help them have sex in the ways that they want and that respect the choices of those around them. Whether the goal is promoting social distancing or preventing sexual assault, work with young people needs to begin with a recognition of their right to sexual self-determination.

Bio

Jennifer S. Hirsch and Shamus Khan are professors at Columbia University and co-authors of Sexual Citizens: A Landmark Study of Sex, Power and Assault on Campus (W. W. Norton, 2020).

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