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Can We Talk About Sex on Campus?

The things your college student needs to know about sex and campus life

I used to love the late comedian Joan Rivers, who started jokes about uncomfortable material with “Can we talk?” So can we talk about college sex? How uncomfortable is it to discuss intimacy and sexual safety with your young adult children? Whatever discomfort you have, I want this article to convince you of the importance of having The Talk.

You can’t ignore sex, when two thirds of college students reported being sexually active in the last year. You will want to talk with your child about how sex should be safe and consensual. You also want to talk about sexual dangers, like sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases. You may not think your children will listen to you, but I have a secret: while seeming not to hear you, young adults take in everything you say. Your words can have a profound influence on them.

Read on if you are a parent of a college student of any age, but especially if your child just got accepted to college. This is a wonderful time as your child decides where and how they will spend the next four years of their life. This is also a critical time for having a frank sex talk with your child.

Relationship Sex versus Hooking Up

“Casual Sex.” “Friends with Benefits.” Hooking up is not a new trend, as these movies show. They also show the complications that arise from sex without commitment. I’m not saying it never works out – hookups can sometimes lead to permanent relationships. But I have also observed the heartbreak that can happen when hookups lead to hurt feelings, when one partner is wanting a commitment and the other wants to keep it casual.

It sounds old-fashioned, but I believe sex is better for your physical and emotional health when it occurs between two people who know each other well and care about each other. Some parents might also believe that sex should be saved for marriage. But with the average age of marriage rising, this expectation may be hard to achieve.

Here are some tips that you can offer your child about sexual relationships on campus.

  1. Don’t feel like you have to have sex because you are in college. Many people are not prepared for the emotional intensity of a sexual relationship. Wait until you are ready.
  2. Get to know someone before you have sex. Trust, respect, and love are great aphrodisiacs.
  3. Make sure you agree on what is going to happen during sex. Get verbal consent before having sex. If you want to stop in the middle, that is okay. If your partner wants to stop, then stop.

Verbal consent before sex is a topic that has come up on campuses and in state legislatures. It is a way to avoid misunderstandings; some people recommend verbal consent as a means of lowering the incidence of sexual assault. Unfortunately, sexual assault is a major problem on college campuses.

Sexual Assault

The statistics about campus sexual assault always shock me: almost one of four women and one of twenty men reported being sexually assaulted since they enrolled in college. While it can happen at any time, the risk of sexual assault is highest during the first few months of college. It’s essential that parents of all college students, especially rising freshmen, talk with their children about sexual safety.

Here are some tips you can offer your children to prevent assault.

  1. Avoid binge drinking – 5 drinks in 2 hours for a man and 4 drinks in 2 hours for a woman. Alcohol is a factor in most campus sexual assaults.
  2. Do not accept a drink unless you have seen it poured by a bartender. Do not leave your drink unattended.
  3. Use a buddy system when going to a party. Buddies should not leave friends at a party.
  4. Take a self-defense course. For example, a program called R.A.D. – Rape Aggression Defense, teaches risk-reduction and self-defense techniques to women. Students who have taken the course describe it as empowering.

Sexual assault is not the only threat to your college student’s health. Sexually transmitted diseases are another major campus health hazard.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like chlamydia and gonorrhea are on the rise, especially in adults aged 15-24. Although HIV rates have declined since 2005, about 40,000 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the United States in 2015. Despite the risk of acquiring an STD, only about half of college students who are sexually active regularly use condoms.

Here is some information you can provide your children about avoiding STDs.

  1. Go to your campus student health care center or health promotions office to get the latest information on STD prevention. While you are there, take some free condoms, which many of these offices provide.
  2. If you think there is a chance you might be sexually active when you are going out, carry a condom with you. (I give this advice to both my female and male patients.)
  3. If you are in a long-term committed relationship, you may use other contraceptives like the pill or an IUD. You may not want to use a condom, but make sure both of you are tested for STDs before having unprotected sex for the first time.

Sex is one of the toughest topics to talk about with your college-aged children, but also one of the most important. All college students should know about sexual relationships, sexual assault prevention, and STD prevention, even if it seems like sex is a long way off. Let your children know they can come to you with questions, or seek advice from campus resources like the student health care center, health promotions office, and counseling center. Sexual safety and wellness will contribute to your child’s health and happiness in the college years.

Check future blogs for details on my upcoming book on parenting and college wellness.

©2017 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic regarding college wellness and your child’s mental health, please email me at

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GGG stands for "good, giving, and game." Think "good in bed," "giving of equal time and equal pleasure," and "game for anything—within reason."