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Students navigate relationships, sexual health in hook-up culture

After another woman showed interest in her during class, Katherine Visger friended her on Facebook and asked if her classmate was interested in casually hooking up.

The woman agreed, and the pair met at Visger’s apartment. It was established that Visger wasn't interested in a relationship.

Bad sex soon ensued, and the woman rode home in a taxi while Visger slept off what the December graduate dubbed a bad night. She didn't prepare for the extreme awkwardness that would soon follow during their next class together.

Valentine's Day is over, but you're still thinking, talking about and having sex. How do students navigate their sexuality when they get to college?

Ask an expert. Communication faculty member Alysa Lucas conducts research focused on the nuances of the sexual decision-making process in college-aged students and the role communication between friends has in preventing or encouraging risky behavior.

Last fall, she performed a study on first-year college students to see how long it took to talk about sex with their new friends. She expected the frequency of discussion would increase throughout four surveys that were given every three weeks.

The survey revealed 95.9 percent of the 148 participants had already talked about sex with new friends only two weeks into the semester. The fourth survey, issued 12 weeks into the semester, revealed 63.4 percent of participants now talked about sex with their friends "occasionally to all the time."

“Making friends was like, ‘Where are you from? What’s your major? Have you had sex yet?’ It’s becoming one of those topics, which may imply that there’s an expectation to have sex by the time they come to college,” Lucas said. “College is a prime environment for these conversations and behaviors to happen because we are in such close quarters.”

Lucas said discussing sex early is a way students get to know each other, obtain advice and determine what’s considered "normal" sexual behavior. It also might help students feel like they fit in, while establishing a "sexual social status" among peers. 

Compared to past generations, sex has become a more comfortable topic among friends. 

“It used to be, you go to college to get married and then it’s done. Now people might not get married until maybe 28,” Lucas said. “Until marriage, friends are extremely important, especially during particular moments of life, until family becomes a focus and friendships aren’t as prominent.”

Visger, who is a transgender woman, said sex in college played a part in discovering and understanding herself.

College students are more open to sex because a hotel room isn’t needed to have it, just a roommate being gone an extra hour, she said.

“There’s an understanding that if there's a tie or sock on the door, someone is discovering themselves in an atmosphere that should be happy,” Visger said. “It’s the positive exploration of not only their partner's (body), but their own.”

The days of students waiting to explore their partners may be gone as the era of dating slowly subsides. The millennial generation doesn’t live in a dating era, but one of "talking," said Lucas, who is unsure if anyone knows what "talking" means.

“Dating is so ambiguous nowadays that until someone says that you’re official, then people don’t really know,” Lucas said. “That allows the opportunity for friends with benefits or hooking up. We are definitely in a hookup era, where people think that’s what is going on, but I don’t necessarily think that’s what everyone is doing.”

Physical health

Though navigating relationships is sometimes confusing, keeping physically healthy doesn't have to be. However, students come to CMU with a wide range of knowledge about protecting themselves against sexually transmitted infections.

Grand Rapids senior Abigail Miklusicak’s high school had abstinence-based sex education. This restricted her from learning information about STIs in a classroom setting.

“They essentially scared us into not having sex. For those of us that were brave enough to venture into the sexually-active world, we were unprepared because no one was talking about it,” she said. 

The most common reportable STI in Isabella County is chlamydia, with a reported rate of 235 cases in 2014. It is recommended that sexually active students get tested annually, because the symptoms of chlamydia sometimes aren't obvious. However, this number could be higher because if a student has their home address as their primary one, the data will not be counted in Isabella County.

CMU ranked 98th out of 140 major universities in the Trojan Sexual Health Report Card for 2015 based on sexual health resources available to students.

Students can meet with a health educator at University Health Services to learn more about STIs. Health educator Lori Wangberg is a certified HIV test counselor at CMU, which allows her to provide testing and counseling to students on a self-referred basis.

These appointments include risk assessment, an educational component and a blood test. Medical providers are able to prescribe hormonal contraceptive methods.

"It is important to remember that oral contraceptives do not protect against STIs," Wangberg said. "Barrier methods such as condoms help to protect against contracting some STIs and offer some protection from pregnancy, especially if they are used consistently and correctly."

Still, students rarely discuss serious sexual health-related topics with friends and instead tend to only participate in what Lucas calls “whether or not to” discussions. These can happen when students ask their friends for advice, like if they should have sex with an ex-significant other or for the first time in a relationship.

“People don’t want to talk about these things because they’re a downer. I think our sex education in high school is lacking in that students aren’t prepared for sex or sex on a college campus,” Lucas said. 

Mental health

The emotions associated with having sex, alcohol mixed with sex and sexual assault risks are rarely covered in high school sex education classes. They are often considered too heavy of a discussion between friends, so the topic is avoided, Lucas said.

Students should think about how sex could change a relationship, if they have the emotional capability to handle a pregnancy and can handle any disappointment or confusion, said Safer Sex Patrol members at their Feb. 10, “Let's Talk Sex" event.

The media tends to lean toward depicting hookups as exclusively positive things people enjoy, which probably leads to disappointment when a hookup actually happens, Lucas said.

“Women are more likely to experience regret after a hookup because historically, men have had more sexual freedom than women,” Lucas said. “Women were supposed to behave in a certain way, so there may still be inklings of that. If we did more research on the topic, we’d see more women are participating in behaviors much like men have done in the past.” 

Petersburg junior Jay Goodin said while there are sexual health resources are available, they aren't advertised enough that he would know where the resources actually are unless directly interested in them.

The programs he's participated in were available in residence halls.

"I think it would be good to have more campus-wide sexual health education (events). Most of the time, you just see a flyer on a dorm wall," Goodin said. "But I don't think sexual education should be required at this age."

The gap between gender expectations may be shrinking, but the reputation for women remains more fragile when related to sex, Lucas said. 

Goodin thinks this varies on who you talk to.

"I feel like most of the time, men aren't as respectful as they should be," he said. "I feel like women are held to a higher standard than men are, which isn't right. Just be responsible and be respectful."