If your kid is heading off to college soon, there’s so much to do: clothes to sort and pack, dorm equipment and bedding to buy, technology to figure out, maybe travel plans to make. Plus you and your kid are dealing with complicated emotions: excitement about a new life stage, anxiety about academics and social life, sadness about leaving family and old friends. Those feelings can come out directly or as irritability or clinginess. It’s…quite a time.
One of the concerns that may be flitting through both parents’ and kids’ minds is sexuality. Dorm living may be the first time your kid is away from home, mostly unsupervised, for an extended period. It’s up to her to make friends—and to make sexual choices.
So while you and your kid are packing and shopping for college supplies, talk about sex. At this point, of course your kid knows the biology of sex (in fact, he may know more about sexual practices than you do—there is a lot of information and porn available to teens). But there’s still a place for parents to talk about sexual choices. Don’t preach, but do give your kid some perspective and food for thought.
There’s less casual sex going on than TV and movies imply. Showing frisky, promiscuous teens attracts eyeballs to movies, but it’s a far cry from reality. Young adults have fewer partners than you might think. There certainly is plenty of “hooking up” on campuses, but that doesn’t necessarily mean sex; the term also includes “making out”/kissing/”necking” outside of a committed relationship. And a lot of young people boast about sexual exploits that didn’t really happen.
You don’t have to do what other people want. There may be pressure—from potential partners, and possibly from friends—to have sex or participate in specific sexual activities. Those people can want whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree to it. If something doesn’t feel comfortable to you, don’t do it, even if you disappoint someone else. Your feelings and your voice matter every bit as much as theirs.
You have to be prepared to say No when you want to say No. Going to college means becoming an adult, and adults take responsibility for their own choices. You can’t use “I have to get home before midnight” as an excuse when you live in a dorm or apartment. It can help to think ahead about polite but firm ways to say No. Phrases like “I’m sorry, I’m not up for that tonight” or “This is as far as I want to go” should be ready in your back pocket for when you might need them.
If you choose to have sex, be responsible about it. Use birth control, every time. College campuses have health centers that offer sex information and birth control. Anyone who is mature enough to have sex should be mature enough to protect against STIs and unplanned pregnancy.
Being responsible includes making sure the other person is truly willing to have sex—and backing off if he or she isn’t. Be absolutely sure your partner consents to the specific sexual activity. Having had sex or whatever with someone previously doesn’t mean they have to do it again today. It’s not safe to assume that silence means agreement; ask! Also, consent to sex should be much more direct with someone who’s buzzed than with someone who’s sober.
Be careful about alcohol. It reduces impulse control and impairs judgment; people who’ve had too much to drink can get themselves into difficult situations. It’s good to go to parties with a buddy who’ll help make sure you get home safely if you’ve had too much.
Learn about your college’s policy on sexual conduct. More and more colleges are developing policies that outline clear expectations for how students are expected to behave regarding sexuality, especially related to sexual assault and meaningful consent. Find out what your school says; maybe compare that with the policies at friends’ colleges. How do the policies differ? What are the pros and cons of each school’s approach? Just as you’ll be building your critical thinking skills in other areas, start to think critically about sexuality and how we communicate about it.