Relationships, sexuality, and sexual activity
By Chelsea Petree
Department of Family Social Science
At some point in the past seventeen or eighteen years, you have probably engaged in conversations with your student about the “birds and the bees.” During college, students face new questions related to sex and sexuality as they learn to accept responsibility for their actions and decide on their own beliefs and values. For some students, this can be a time of uncertainty and a time to work to become the person they want to be.
They are also trying to establish an equal relationship with you, their parent. As your student experiences a new environment and encounters new people and ideas at the University of Minnesota, it remains important for you to keep talking—not as the ultimate authority but as a loving, caring mother or father. Our hope is that by providing parents with information about the campus culture and sexuality in early adulthood, students will receive messages from home that will help them make thoughtful and responsible decisions about relationships, sexuality, and sexual activity during the college years.
Intimate relationships are an essential part of life. At college, students are meeting new friends, surrounded by peers who do not know one another’s personal history, but who are all in a common environment and seeking a common goal—preparing for the future. Friendships begin quickly, based on the shared experience of similar schedules, close living quarters, and comparable challenges and accomplishments.
The individuals they are attracted to and the relationships they have with these new friends are part of their physical, mental, and social development. Whether relationships are romantic or not, the ways they relate to others are how they learn about life and how to work with others.
Every parent wants the best for their child and hopes that their student develops caring, safe relationships. At this stage of your student’s life, he or she is learning that all close friendships are different and that it is important to create and maintain healthy relationships and boundaries. Signs of a healthy relationship include a mutual respect for one another, support of opinions and decisions, equality, trust, and honesty.
Sexuality is a natural part of development that continues throughout one’s life. It extends beyond physical desires, and it is much more than simply avoiding negative outcomes. Healthy sexuality includes who we are as well as our physical, emotional, and social traits. It is also who we are attracted to and how we feel about our bodies, ourselves, sexual behaviors, and choices.
Students come to campus at different stages of sexual self-knowledge and experience. It’s normal and healthy at this stage of life for students to consider their own sexuality in different terms than they ever did before. Students might consider the values or messages they've heard all their lives, but they will also be thinking of how sex and those values fit into their own lives. Your student will be meeting people with very different sexual experiences than they have had, they will meet people with different sexual orientations, and they will discover that, despite the differences, they also have much in common with these new friends.
Students choose to be intimate in a variety of different ways, ranging from holding hands to engaging in sexual intercourse. Being sexually active or remaining abstinent is a choice that your student will need to make and one that will be made more than once. The choice they make this weekend may not be the same as the choice last weekend or next month.
Not all students choose to have sexual intercourse. A survey of Minnesota college students indicated that 28 percent had not been sexually active in the past twelve months; 22 percent had never been sexually active. Moreover, 77.8 percent said they had no sexual partner or just one sexual partner within the past twelve months.
Students base their decisions about sexual activity on different reasons. Some students choose not to have sex because they are worried about pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, or what their parents will think. Others make a conscious decision to wait because they have not met the right person, or they feel they are too young. Still others choose to focus on school and feel a serious relationship—and sex—will come after college. Some make the decision based on religious beliefs.
Most people choose to remain abstinent at some time in their lives. Being abstinent is not the same as being sexless. Abstinence can be a choice about one’s body, mind, spirit, and sexual health, as well as a positive way of dealing with sexuality. While abstinent, men and women continue to have sexual thoughts and feelings.
Parents are a vital part of a student’s life. Students’ relationships with their parents help contribute to their mental well-being and adjustment to college. Meaningful discussions with your student about relationships, sexual information, facts, and the potential joys and risks of sexual activity are valuable and important.
Communicating with your student about your own beliefs and values is part of the relationship. As you express your attitude and explain your reasoning, you give your student the knowledge and confidence to make his or her own decisions and the skills to be able to find answers to questions he or she may have.
Communication with college students is most effective in an open, nonjudgmental climate where there is mutual dialogue between parent and student. Research has shown that parents often feel uncomfortable discussing sexual topics with their student for a number of different reasons—they don’t want to embarrass their student, they don’t want to embarrass themselves, they think their student does not want to discuss sex, or they simply don’t know how to talk about it. Therefore, many parents focus on physical development and sexual safety—or ignore the topic altogether—rather than discuss sex as a personal or relationship-based topic. As a parent, you can speak with your student about the powerful emotions of attachment in relationships, responsibility for actions, sexual decision-making, respect for individual rights, and the impact that alcohol has on sexual behavior.
- Keep the lines of communication open, your child is now an adult
- When initiating a conversation about sex and sexuality, it can be easier to begin by talking about relationships
- Discuss qualities that you both feel are important to a healthy relationship, such as communication, trust, mutual respect, and safety; share why you feel these qualities are important and what qualities in a relationship or partner are harmful or destructive
- You can use news stories and current events to introduce the topic, as well as indirect questions about sexual activity on campus (“I’ve been seeing a lot on TV about sex and college students during spring break. Do you think students at your school consider casual sex the norm?”)
- Acknowledge choices and personal responsibility, and avoid demands
- Offer physical and emotional closeness, but respect your student’s need for privacy and independence
- Appreciate your student for his/her unique strengths
- Facilitate access to sexual and reproductive health care on campus (Boynton Health Services) or at a clinic near home
- Offer guidance and share your values
- When your student asks a question, answer it directly and honestly, without judgment; if you don’t know the answer, admit that you don’t know and find the answer (the list of additional resources provided below is a good starting point)
- Share the normalcy and joys of sexuality; loving relationships are wonderful, and sexuality means more than just sex.
- When responding to your student’s questions, use phrases like the following:
- What do you think?
- That’s a good question.
- I don’t know, but I’ll find out.
- I don’t know. How would you find the answer to that?
- I’m glad you told me about that.
- That’s none of your business.
- You’re too young.
- We’ll talk about that when you need to know.
Boynton Health Services—Boynton provides medical care, heath education and public health services to University students, staff and faculty.
SHADE (Sexual Health Awareness and Disease Education)—SHADE is a student organization that meets weekly with the SHADE student coordinators and Boynton staff.
Aurora Center—The Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education (TAC) provides free and confidential crisis intervention to victims of sexual assault, relationship violence, stalking and harassment. TAC also provides services for "concerned persons," that is, people who are concerned about a friend or loved one who has experienced these types of crimes. This webpage also offers a variety of sites for more specified information on sexual assault.
GLBTA Programs Office—The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally (GLBTA) Programs Office is dedicated to improving campus climate for all University of Minnesota students, staff, faculty, alumni, and visitors by developing and supporting more inclusive understandings of gender and sexuality.
Advocates for Youth—The Advocates for Youth Web site contains a wealth of information on a variety of topics and issues related to adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
Smarter Sex—SmarterSex.org was created with the special needs of college students in mind. It is an exciting and one-of-a-kind sexual health Web site for college students with the hope that it will encourage not only students, but also educators and parents, to discuss and learn from each other about smart sex.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—The Department of Health and Human Services provides fact sheets, information, and statistics on common STDs.
Minnesota Department of Health—General information about STDs as well as hot topics, statistics, reports, and more links.
Teenwise Minnesota—Teenwise provides information to parents, teens, educators, health care providers, and policy makers through the mission to develop and strengthen policies and programs that promote adolescent sexual health, pregnancy prevention, and support for adolescent parents.
The Guttmacher Institute—The Guttmacher Institute advances sexual and reproductive health through research, public education, and policy analysis. The key program areas include information on adolescent sexual and reproductive health, health services and financing, healthy pregnancies, contraception and abortion, and relationships, intimacy, and sexual behavior.
Healthy Teen Network—This national organization works to make a difference for teens and young families through their focus on adolescent health and well-being with emphasis on teen pregnancy and prevention, and teen parenting.