Exploring Sex on College Campuses
Since 2022, schools including Tulane University in New Orleans, Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, have all had sex weeks on their respective campuses.
Although recent studies have shown younger adults are less likely to have sex than previous generations, sex is still very much of interest for undergraduates on campuses across the country.
Sex week comes to campus
Since Nathan Harden criticized Sex Week at Yale University and the school's casual approach to sex in his 2012 book, "Sex and God at Yale," the events have thrived on campuses.
At Vanderbilt University, the Vandy Sex Ed program provides free condoms and lube during events. The program also hosts a weeklong event devoted to introducing undergraduates to topics including birth control, gynecology, reproductive health, intersectionality, hookup culture and more.
"As a peer educator, I personally love [Sex and Healthy Relationships] week because it's an opportunity for us to talk about topics we're really interested in and think are important to discuss, especially among young adults," said Olivia Wilborn, a student at Vanderbilt.
The program offers antidotes to the criticism leveled by Lisa Wade, author of "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus," who several years ago suggested hookup culture on campuses only served a minority of students who tended to be more "affluent, able-bodied, white, conventionally attractive, heterosexual and male."
“It’s been a favorite program on campus as we discussed what’s stigmatized or oft-neglected among students—whether you’re in a relationship, hooking up with multiple partners, not having sex at all or somewhere in between,” Wilborn explained.
At Rice University, in Houston, Texas, two sex weeks took place this year. A student club known as the Sex Week Educational Awareness Team at Rice, or SWEAT@Rice for short, hosted one of them.
Alex Han organized the first sex week at Rice last year, and along with co-chair Maddie Salinas, started SWEAT@Rice to make use of club organization funding for activities that bring the perspectives of physicians to events that widen representation when it comes to sexuality and gender identity.
"For our [second] annual Sex Week, we had 468 attendees, $2,500 sponsors giveaways, $1,000 event funding and 11 speakers," he said. "This is a fairly big turnout considering our school has only 4,247 undergraduate students. This was a big improvement from our first Sex Week, which featured only [two] speakers. Our most recent Sex Week has generated conversations surrounding sex on campus and has been effective in raising awareness of the importance of STI testing among our students."
Jamie Reed, a member of Student Advocates for Sexual Health Awareness (SASHA) at Ohio State University, said the student organization hosted about 25 events for this year's sex week at OSU, which ran from February 12 to February 18.
"Our vice president and I lead one of the events," Reed said, a senior at OSU this year. "We had a presentation on screening yourself for cancer and your reproductive organs and breasts."
Sadea Bryant, a non-traditional student at OSU in her 30s who also runs an adult store, participated in her university's sex week for the past two years.
This year, she facilitated an event focused on speed dating and healthy communication, and led an event titled, "Hands, Mouths, Toys, and More: Talking Pleasure without Penetration." During the latter, students discussed erogenous zones and the different kinds of touch, temperature play and toys that can be used for stimulation minus penetration of orifices.
"We talked about what you can do instead of insertable toys; we talked about toys maybe that are [better cushioned], or the new influx of flicker toys, or strokers," Bryant said, later adding: "They had so much curiosity about toys."
College students and consent
At Ohio State, SASHA events also address the subject of sexual consent.
"Whenever we have any pleasure events, consent is always a topic of discussion, as well as, like, safety, and when consent can be revoked and when consent cannot be given," Reed said. They emphasize the importance of enthusiastically consenting and try to account for the different dimensions of consent.
Lori Bednarchik, Ph.D., MPH, a lecturer at several colleges, has re-worked and led a FratMANers—which stands for Fraternity Men Against Negative Environments and Rape Situations, a peer health education program—and still does about 20 to 30 speaking events each year. Bednarchik said some students struggle with communication, especially as it pertains to sex.
Students might exchange flirty text messages but then when they see each other and become physically intimate one might assume the other is down to try everything they mentioned via text. Some students haven't fully developed the skills to broach consent in the real world.
"So my main message is trying to kind of frame this conversation of consent around like, let's just be talking about sex and sexual interaction and figuring out what your boundaries are by asking yourself questions about, 'What are you okay with?' 'What are you not okay with?' 'How are you going to communicate that to somebody when you're in the situation?' 'How are you going to communicate with that person if they push that boundary or cross that boundary?'" she said.
Kink on campus
At the University of California at Berkeley, a student organization called Kink Club works on harm reduction, community building and education in relation to sex, and they also discuss how to navigate consent, said Max, a co-president of the organization and a senior at UCB who asked that his last name not be used.
Max, who identifies as gay, acknowledged that in the kink and BDSM world(s), the standard definitions and practices of sexual consent can break down.
"Because you may have a certain situation or a certain scene where 'No, stop' doesn't actually mean 'No, stop,' right?," he explained. "You're gonna have situations where people want to feel like and want to act out and live being overpowered or overpowering someone. So we put a lot of pressure [on] and talk about what we term a negotiation, which essentially is a vital step in engaging in BDSM and engaging in kink, where you spend a period of time specifically talking to your partner or partners about exactly what you want to have happen in the scene."
Max noted that members of the Berkeley club discuss how kink need not be spontaneous. Often, he added, the more planning, the stronger the mutual understanding between partners, the greater the connection, the higher levels of trust that can be built and the greater the co-introspection when engaging in a scene the better.
"It's that portion of the negotiation before any clothes come off, leather goes on, whips come out or anything like that, [during which] you have a very extended period of time where you talk everything through exactly," he said.
Unconventional sexual relations
At OSU, Bryant admitted to a limited personal understanding of what students aged 18 to 22 are doing sexually because she's not necessarily in the same social circles, but based on observations from facilitating events and in conversations related to sex, she noted some kind of culture geared toward hookups still exists.
But it might not be your millennial aunt's unfulfilling, connection-lacking hookup culture.
Bryant said she thinks she now hears more about "ethically non-monogamous" relationships. The dating app Tinder recently rolled out a preferred relationship type specification, which includes ethical non-monogamy as an option.
Perhaps the trend toward those sexual partnerships will help make sex more welcoming for some students who would like to be having it but aren't, or for those who want to have more meaningful sexual partnerships than they have had up to this point.
"I see a lot more of my classmates exploring the ideal of what we would look at as non-traditional relationships," she explained. "I see and I hear more of my classmates talking about how they are maybe in multiple relationships with multiple people, and doing it in a very ethical way. I don't hear as much, I guess, hookup talk as I once did. But [instead] more, 'So I am looking for this type of connection here, but I'm also looking for this connection here. And I understand that I might not get those from the same people. But we are figuring out ways to discuss that. And so I'll be okay with that [and we'll be] in community with each other.'"