It is the end of my first semester of college away from home, and I know only one thing for certain: college students are really sexed-up. Despite that the young women in my dorm bemoan the dearth of straight, available, good-looking guys in our school (and in New York as a whole), sexual encounters were almost constantly under way.
Only, a lot of people weren't exactly smart or safe about it.
See the example set by Patty*, a freshman at Pace University in New York, who yawned as she recounted the story of one of her sexual endeavors from the weekend for the eight other young women sitting in our dorm lounge.
"I don't know what it is," she explained, "but there's something about condoms that freaks me out. So we just didn't use them."
The only thing more unusual than her statement was that the others in the dorm lounge listening to her stories were not perturbed... they were in accordance, bearing "been there, done that" looks on their faces.
Whether it is the abstinence-only sex education, raunch culture, or raging hormones, the decisions made by some of the college students I encounter are quite disturbing. And it's not like this is a male-driven initiative, powered by guys who bemoan condoms; it seems there are just as many young women as young men who aren't crazy about the Trojan man.
Jessica Haro, a junior at Stanford University, and the youngest member of the board of directors of Choice USA, a Washington, D.C.-based youth-oriented organization that advocates for reproductive rights, definitely sees this going on at Stanford. "I'd say there are less unprotected anonymous hookups than there are couples who constantly have unprotected sex. When a person supposes that her partner is monogamous, and she's on the Pill, it's easy for her to let her guard down... But either way, it happens."
Just to be clear, the majority of teens and college students do practice safe sex--and it shows. According to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute and Columbia University, "Explaining Recent Declines in Adolescent Pregnancy in the United States: The Contribution of Abstinence and Improved Contraceptive Use," there has been a 24% decrease in teen pregnancy between 1995 and 2002... and researchers designate increased contraception use among young people as the main cause of this decline. This is a good thing. Although women's magazines like Cosmopolitan and Glamour discuss sex as though using a condom is a given, there is a present minority among the youngest generation of the sexually active--from today's young teens to the older college students--who don't seem as attached to the notion of "safe sex."
Unfortunately, that minority always messes things up. That minority is the one of young people not making smart choices about sex. That minority is the one that made "pulling out" en vogue again. That minority is the one that has made unprotected oral sex into a casual affair. While the majority of young people do employ condoms, that minority generally sees them as wholly superfluous. That is a very, very bad thing.
This is especially paradoxical, considering that we are the "Rent generation." We grew up cognizant of the risks of unsafe sex. Our favorite celebrities have posed for HIV/AIDS consciousness-raising Aldo ads, and we've read about how to get a guy to wear a condom in Seventeen.
Well, we loved seeing pictures of our favorite celebrities (namely, John Mayer) with their mouths duct-taped shut for the Aldo ads, and seeing Ashley Tisdale on the cover of Seventeen, was, like, so great! but the messages about safe sex may have streamed right through the filter of what we retain in our brains for quick recall.
Ann Brooks, a nurse practitioner specializing in women's health at the student health center at the University of California at Los Angeles sees both students taking responsibility for their sex lives, and others who, well, don't. "I have a full range of how people are dealing with their sexuality and their relationships. I see sexually active people who are on birth control and use condoms, and I have sexually active people who don't use anything."
We are a post-Roe generation. We were not alive to see the sexual revolution and the fight for the rights that we take for granted today. We know about Planned Parenthood, but we don't know about the history of its Supreme Court cases. Every woman under the age of thirty is reminded of the danger of illegal abortions during her at least-annual screening of the chick flick classic, Dirty Dancing, but when our clothes are off and no one has a condom, for some people, there's no problem. Only, young women today can't assume that emergency contraception and abortion are there as backup plans, because, with today's Supreme Court, things could go wild.
(Well, about as wild as things could get when you have a government full of old white conservative guys dictating the sexual practices of today's vibrant young people. Which means that things could get pretty lame. Or things could get pregnant and barefoot.)
So why aren't we thinking?!?!
Patty attempts to exonerate herself: "The thing is, when I had unprotected sex, it was because I knew that cyclically it wasn't really feasible. And, then I was a little concerned because my period is almost three weeks late, but then I remembered that my period is pretty irregular to begin with, so I'm not going to worry myself into a coma."
However, Patty is leaving something out: she received abstinence-only sex education in high school.
The blame should probably be directed at Washington, where increasing funding for abstinence-only sex education teaches high school students faulty or insufficient information about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, and students take this knowledge (or lack thereof) with them to college. Unfortunately, even in schools where comprehensive sex education is available, sometimes health class is considered an extra study hall, where teachers put on a movie and students can decide whether they'd like to watch or to study, talk, or Blackberry their way through the period.
However, it's the abstinence-only that seems to do the real harm... "especially because there are no strong studies that show a correlation between abstinence-only and, well, abstinence," explains Haro. The most glaring effect I can see of abstinence-only sex education is the quantity of college kids getting it on without consideration of protection.
Jessica Haro rationalizes the situation: "Since teens are taught that condoms don't work, they think, 'Why use them?' But it's a horrible thing to put teens in danger like that. I can't speak to how many Stanford students received that kind of sex education, given that roughly half of us are from California, but the way some people act here, you could presume they thought condoms didn't work... I went to public school in Southern California and I got awesome sex education but I can't say we all got that, which I think is why this problem still exists."
The radical right has all sorts of dumb slogans to dissuade young people from acknowledging their genitals until marriage (my favorite: "I won't until I do"). The progressive community needs some for safe and sex condom usage. I got one: "Don't get it on, until you have one on." Someone get Ogilvy and Mather on the phone.
What sexually active young people need more than anything is compassion from the progressive movement and the acknowledgement from mainstream society that yes, young people are sexual beings. We need to give the same support and awareness in society to preventing pregnancy that we give to causing it, and give the same support to preventing sexually transmitted infections among young people as we do to adults. There is such hyper-sexualization geared towards young people in the mainstream media (with respects to the advertising, television, music, and movies geared towards young people), but when we need information on how to be sexual, safely, far too many young people are simply being pushed into purity balls. Ick...
*Last name withheld to protect anonymity