Higher Learning: Navigating Sex and Relationships in College

Going off to college can be an exciting time: a chance to learn new things, meet new people, and have new freedoms and adventures. But it can also be a stressful time, especially if it's the first time we're really learning to take care of ourselves by ourselves. We enter into college with varying degrees of preparedness when it comes to being on our own, depending on the culture we come from and the household we grew up in. Some people have been cooking for themselves or doing their laundry since they were children; others may not even feel sure which appliance is the washing machine and which is the oven.

Whatever our existing level of independence, one area where many of us struggle is caring for our physical and mental wellness while in college, especially when it comes to sex⁠ and sexual⁠ health. Sex and other comprehensive health education is still dodgy (or non-existent) in many places, and even high schools with good sex ed may not touch upon how to access resources when away at school, or address how to put what you learn into practical use on your own. Our aim with this guide is to give you a crash course in how to take care of your sexual self, and your body and mind in general,  if you're heading off on your own to college or university.

Your Mental and Physical Health

Make time to familiarize yourself with what resources there are on campus and in the community. You can do this online or in person. If there's a campus health center, go check it out⁠ either when you visit campus for the first time, or before classes start. Find out what types of services are offered, and how you'd go about accessing or paying for those services (many large colleges in the United States offer some health insurance as part of your tuition, but it's always good to check to see what that does and does not cover).

Mental health services are usually a part of the bigger campus health network, although they are sometimes run from a different part of campus than the general health center. Find out what kind of help is offered and how students go about accessing it. If you have a mental health issue that you're already treating, work with your current therapist or doctor to come up with a plan on how to keep your care going when you start college (this is assuming you can't continue to see them due to distance). You can also ask them to help you make a care plan while you're away at school, and even ask them to be sure it takes into account the extra stress you'll likely be feeling.

Self-care is important when you're at school. We have a starter guide for that here, but I want to demonstrate the different shapes self-care can take in student life.  I also want to emphasize that, when you're dealing with a packed student schedule, self-care may feel indulgent or irresponsible. But it's not: taking time to care for yourself is actually a responsible move, and supports your education as well as your general well-being, since it helps head off a total crash and burn. Short on time? Self-care doesn't have to be time consuming, and many ways of caring for yourself can fit into a busy daily schedule. Have a day of studying ahead of you? After every hour, get up and take 15 or 20 minutes to do something that will make you feel good (quick walk, a snack, play with a pet, etc).  On a budget?  Plenty of self-care approaches, like exercise, or going to the library, or calling a friend, are free.  The more you're able to build self-care into your routine, the easier time you'll have keeping stress at bay. 

Creating or maintaining healthy habits while in college is a lifesaver (and major form of self-care). Exercise is a big one, both because it helps protect your physical health and can be a great way to blow off stress (what kind is up to you based on what you like and what your physical abilities are). Sometimes, getting exercise  -- and working out the painful kinks in your neck that are inevitable with long study sessions or lecture classes -- is as simple as biking or walking to class or around town. You can also check out organizations like intramural sports teams if you want to play for the sake of play, or campus and community clubs that focus on things like hiking, biking, or even muggle quidditch.

Eating well is an equally sound habit to develop, although it can be a difficult one. You're dealing not only with the time crunch of a student schedule, but also a student budget, and depending on where you're living, getting a hold of healthy food can be a trial. And if this is the first time you've had to shop or cook for yourself, it may take you a little while to get the hang of it. That's why many of us come out of college with stories like: "I ate nothing but cheese on toast for dinner for two weeks." And hey, sometimes you've got to work with what you have: there's no shame in that.

Whenever possible, do try to eat food that has some nutritional value beyond mere calories, and that will help fuel you to get through whatever you need to do that day, which will often be a whole lot. There are a growing number of books (and a lot of blogs) that focus on how to eat well when you're busy and have a limited budget.

In the event that you do get sick (and you probably will) a little pre-planning can make your life easier. When you're heading off to school, pack yourself a mini wellness kit that will help you do self-care while sick. Fill it with the things that you need to deal with standard flus and colds. A general cold medicine, antacids, soothing tea, lozenges, a thermometer if you can manage it, plus things like bandages. Trust me, it'll be nice to not have to drag⁠ your achey, coughing self to the drugstore and instead just reach under your bed for what you need when you get sick.   wellness kit

You may hit a point when sick where you're not sure if you need to seek outside care or not.  Most universities will have an advice nurse line that you can call, where you describe your symptoms and get recommendations about what to do.  If there is not an advice nurse attached to your campus health services, you can internet search for "advice nurse for (insert your city)" to find one.  A general rule is that if you're symptoms last longer than a week or so, get more intense instead of decreasing as time goes on, or get suddenly worse, then it's time to visit a doctor.

Paying attention to your mind is just as important as paying attention to your body when it comes to taking care of yourself. College -- and your brand-new-life-on-your-own, if that's part of college for you -- is stressful. There's no getting around that, so it's going to make your life easier if you accept that, yep, some days or weeks are going to suck and you're going to feel an emotional impact from that.

I highly encourage you to seek out those mental health resources we talked about earlier, especially if you find that you're feeling stressed/anxious/miserable as a rule. There is this weird streak of college culture that can suggest that people who are the most stressed or exhausted are somehow the  winner of everything. But there's no prize for being the most miserable and tired except being the most miserable and tired. More and more campuses recognize this and are making an effort to have resources for students who are struggling with mental health issues.

If mental health issues (either ongoing or caused by a certain incident, like a death of a loved one or the stress of school) are starting to impact your schoolwork, talk with your professors. People in academia are not immune to the general cultural weirdness around mental illness, but the average professor wants students to succeed, or at least have a fighting chance of getting through the course. If you let them know what's up (you don't have to reveal your entire mental health history, just let them know the general shape of the issue), they may be able to direct you to counseling or advising resources, or help you come up with a plan for how to best tackle the coursework. Blogger Captain Awkward has a great list of suggestions for how to have these conversations with your professor.

If you need to drop a class and retry it again another time, that's won't be the end of the world. If school takes you a semester or two (or even a year or two) more to complete than you planned, that does not make you a failure. There is immense pressure, both culturally and financially, on students to move through school efficiently and expertly, and messaging that suggests any delay or setback spells certain doom for your future. But the world just isn't that clear cut, and a year here or there that doesn't go as planned won't make that much difference down the road.

Relationships, Dating and Sex

Figuring out how to navigate relationships in college instead of high school is like swimming in the ocean when you've previously only swum in a pool. The basic mechanics are the same, but there are way more things that can happen, a more complex context, and you may be going it without some of the supports and safeties you had at home. For the average person, it can be overwhelming.

Let me state one thing very clearly: No one perfects the ins and outs of dating in college by the end of their first week. Or their first year. In fact, many of us graduate and are still unsure how to make the process work for us. Everyone is working this out and making it up as they go along, most often using skills they are only acquiring or honing as they go. Please don't feel like a loser if you're struggling where relationships are involved. You've got an awful lot of good company.

Similarly, there's no one "right" way to have relationships (or sex) in college. I promise. There's a tendency to present these years as being the time to go wild and sleep with as many people as possible.  If you're someone who enjoys, or thinks they may enjoy, casual sex, that's certainly on option. We even have a handy guide to help you do it safely and get a sense of if it's something right for you. If that's not something you want, that's all good, too. You're not somehow wasting your college years if you don't have a ton of (or any) sex during that time, and you'll find plenty of people at every college who don't want to have casual sexual experiences or relationships.

The first step in finding your footing in the world of college dating is often to get a sense of what kind of relationship⁠ you're looking for, or that you're curious about (and what kinds feel like total no-go's or do-not-wants for you). Casual? Open? Monogamous? Romantic? More friendship-based? Knowing your own desires will make it easier to communicate with potential partners to see if you two are on the same page about what you basically want from a relationship or interaction, which can head off some "Wait, shoot, I thought we weren't exclusive⁠ " arguments at the pass.

Even if you're someone who prefers monogamy and wants to use dating as a way to find a good long term partner⁠ , know that you will likely still date a number of people while in college. There are lots of folks out there, and odds are the first person you date will not be your perfect (or even pretty good) match. The Kinsey Institute finds that 80% of American men and 69% of American women report having more than one partner in their lifetime.  So try not to get discouraged if you don't meet your soul mate right away.

How do you go about finding people to pursue those relationships or interactions with? It's not as though they hand out a "Here's where to find people you want to date or have sex with" guide at orientation. So what's a student to do?

Stuff, for one. Literally, the best way to meet people in college, be they friends or romantic⁠ partners, is to do stuff. Have a hobby or activity that you love, or that you're curious about? Find out if there's a campus club or organization centering on that activity. That way, you can meet people who you have at least one point in common with, and some of whom may turn out to be the kind of folks you'd like to get to know better. I know this advice might sound cliche, but trust me, I am someone for whom the process of making friends takes about as much time as it does a Redwood Tree to go from pine cone to full grown. And I came out of college with friends thanks to the "just do stuff" approach. It works, not always as fast as you'd like it to, but it works.

dormLet's say you've found someone who you like and who likes you, and now it's time to have a sexy study session. But, if you're like many college students, you're living in close quarters, probably with a roommate or two. How do you go about getting your kicks without being rude to the people you live with? Much as with sex, communication⁠ is key here. Mo and I covered some details of how to mix sex with shared living in this piece, but the gist of it is this: be explicit with each other. It's a good idea to sit down with any roommates at the beginning of the year to discuss some basic ground rules for living together harmoniously (quiet hours, who cleans what, etc). In that conversation, include a discussion of what to do if one of you wants to bring a partner back to the shared space. Will you have a signal on the door so you don't accidentally walk in on each other? Is it okay for guests to stay the night? Are you comfortable spending the night with a friend is one of you wants the room for sexy purposes, or is sexiling (having to spend the night elsewhere due to a roommate having sex) a no-go? Laying this kind of groundwork can help you avoid tension later on. And, don't be afraid to communicate as things change. If you have two midterms tomorrow, maybe let your roommate know that any sexy shenanigans need to take place elsewhere tonight.

While we're on the subject of sex in college, we need to touch upon the combination of alcohol and sex and why mixing them is not actually a great plan. If you're asking for my opinion as a sex educator about what choice is the least likely to result in something bad? Then the simple fact is that you should not combine booze and sex. From the standpoint of the law, any intoxication can mean a sexual assault⁠ has occurred. That's not a bad thing, as the laws around sexual assault should be conservative like that.

Realistically, we know people have sex under the influence they mutually report, before, during and after, they feel is consensual. Still, we strongly advise sticking to sober sex, period⁠ . One can always meet someone intoxicated, and get contact info to have sex when everyone is sober, but that's not how things always play out in real life. So, if you're going to go in intoxicated or with someone who is, clear verbal consent⁠ is a MUST, not a maybe, and ANY indication someone is simply wasted, or isn't aware or alert or all-there should be a stop sign, no argument. And really, if you want to play it safe, don't mix sex and alcohol.

Accessing Sexual Health Services

If you're sexually active⁠ , it's important to keep up your sexual healthcare, whether you need or want STI⁠ tests or contraception⁠ , or just to stay current with your general check-ups.

If you have the anatomy⁠ for it, schedule a gynecologist⁠ visit once a year just to make sure there aren't any issues you need to deal with.  If you've got a penis⁠ , a urologist is the specialist to see.  Some campuses will have these types of doctors on staff at their health center, but others may not. If there isn't an on-campus resource, you can look for nearby sexual healthcare centers. You can also ask your general doctor for a sexual health check-up, or for advice about where to go for sexual health services. It's good to know where these resources are and how to access them before you ever need them: that way, if you suddenly start having odd or painful symptoms, you know where to go to get checked out.

If you've been sexually active (and especially if you've been having any unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse⁠ or oral sex⁠ ) you'll also want to keep up with your STI screenings. Many campuses health centers at least offer Chlamydia and gonorrhea⁠ screenings (as these are two of the most common sexually transmitted infections⁠ and can be detected with a simple urine test). Others may offer more comprehensive screening. Even if your on-campus resources aren't equipped to do the tests, they should be able to tell you where you can go to get them. Again, these tests are the kind of thing that most sexual or reproductive health clinics will be able to provide, usually on a sliding scale.

Accessing Contraception

condom bowl

If you're going to be sexual with others, or want to become so soon, then you'll want to work out how you're going to protect yourself and your partners from unwanted pregnancy⁠ , STIs or both. If you're already using a method like the pill⁠ or the ring⁠ , find out where you can go to get your prescription refilled when you arrive at school. If you're on a long-acting reversible method, like the IUD⁠ or implant, then you might be set for the duration of your time at school. In fact, if you know for certain you don't want to get pregnant in college and you are not already on the IUD/implant, a great option is to have one put in before you leave for school. That way, you don't have to worry about it until the end (or close to the end) of your studies. Long-acting methods like the IUD, implant or Depo-Provera shot are the most effective single methods and also the most goofproof, which can make life easier during those times when you are so tired you can barely remember your own name, let alone remember to take a pill at the same time every day.

Condoms are also the friend of the college student, as they perform the double duty of protecting against both STIs and pregnancy.  Young people account for a large percentage of all new STI cases, and are also at higher risk for unintended pregnancy.  So choosing a contraceptive that covers both those bases is a smart move.  Many colleges have some way for their students to access condoms for free or low cost. Sometimes it's a vending machine in the bathroom, or a bowl in the LGBTQ⁠ resource center or student health center. As you're exploring campus, see if you can find out where the condoms are located. A contraception treasure hunt, if you will.   If your campus does not seem to have condoms available, you can always find them at places like drugstores or supermarkets in the town. They may not be free, but they're still very inexpensive. Or, if you prefer to not buy your condoms at the store, you can buy them online from several sources, including our one stop safer sex shop!  

Who is responsible for having the condoms or other barriers when sex occurs? Everyone. Not just guys, not just who initiated the first move. Everyone. If you're sexually active (or trying to be) it's both good planning and good etiquette to have your barrier of choice ready to go. That way, in the event that sexy times are a go, you lower the chances of making an ill-conceived choice to take big risks by going without.

If you are planning on having sex, it's also sound to find out ahead of time where you can access emergency contraception⁠ should it be needed. Most pharmacies will be able to provide it, so find the closest one to where you'll be living. Additionally, if you're able to, buying a pack of EC ahead of time and storing it somewhere like a bedside table or medicine cabinet is a sound plan. That way, if you need it, it's already there. Really, the more research and pre-planning you do, the easier it is to keep stressful moments under control.

In the event that you need a pregnancy test⁠ and want to do one at home, you can find a test in most drugstores.  We've written about how to use them here, and as with EC, it's sound to buy one ahead of time if you're going to be sexually active so that it's there should you need it.

If you discover you're pregnant and want to end the pregnancy, you can research nearby clinics that provide abortions (many clinics will also provide options counseling, if you are unsure what you want to do with an unintended pregnancy).  If money is a concern, know that many clinics offer services on a sliding scale and that there are organizations like the National Network of Abortion Funds that might be able to assist you.

While we're on the subject of finding clinics, I want to remind you to watch out for CPCs (crisis pregnancy centers): these are fake clinics run by anti- abortion⁠ organizations or individuals whose only aim is to convince anyone who comes in for a pregnancy test not to terminate, often by any means available to them, including with intentional misinformation or emotional bullying or abuse⁠ . CPCs often place themselves near colleges, knowing that college students frequently experience unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. Because those who run them rarely have education, expertise or equipment needed to provide pregnancy care, even for those who want to choose to remain pregnant, CPCs aren't a good place to go. Sometimes they even don't use real tests for pregnancy, so even if a CPC seems like the only way you can find a way to test for pregnancy, know that they aren't even a reliable place to just get tested. 

If you're going somewhere to get a pregnancy test done, rather than buying a home test, call into your local hospital, or ask a general doctor or clinic, for options for free pregnancy testing from a qualified healthcare provider⁠ , or check with friends to see if anyone's gone to where you're going. Or, you can call where you intend to go first, and ask them for a referral to an abortion clinic while you're on the phone.  If they are already an abortion clinic, that's sorted.  If they're not, but give you the number or name of a clinic that is, you can be quite sure you haven't called a CPC. At a CPC, they will either flat-out refuse to give you that information, or dance around the subject.

Consent and Sexual Assault

What's the thing that must absolutely be present for sex to occur, as well as the number one way to prevent sexual assault? Consent.   Make sure that consent is present in all of your sexual interactions with other people.  Put simply, consent is an unambiguous, freely given, and enthusiastic "yes" to a sexual activity.  A person cannot consent to sex if they are asleep, afraid of what happens if they refuse, or (as previously discussed) under the influence of alcohol.  Everyone involved needs to express consent, and everyone involved needs to obtain it, before sexy stuff happens.  If consent is not present, then sex is a no-go.  In addition to the fact that consent is necessary, it's also a conerstone of a good sex life and a healthy relationship overall.  Checking for and expressing consent leads to more thorough and open communication about desires and boundaries in bed, which tends to make sex more enjoyable for everyone.  And the habits you learn by seeking and expressing consent (the respect, the explicitness, the open and dynamic communication) can, and should, translate into your non-sexual interactions with a partner.  If you're interested in the details of consent, you find out more here, here, and here.

When it comes to other ways to prevent assault, much of the advice tends to focus on the potential victims.  It's not bad advice, per se, and you can see a few examples of it in the illustration to the right.  Self-defense is am important skill and help for all of us for our safety. safetyBut this advice, while practical, is a double edged sword.  It provides ways to make yourself less of a target, but focusing too much on these strategies means that when an assault is reported, there's an instinct to blame the victim for not taking every single measure imaginable to protect themselves.  These defensive strategies generally assume that the perpetrator is an opportunistic stranger, when really it's more likely to be someone the victim knows.  That's why I opened by talking about consent.  Because the thing that truly causes rape⁠ is someone not asking for consent, or ignoring when a partner does not consent or can't consent.  By talking about consent, we can start to shift the way we, as a culture, react to assault towards one where we ask "why did you continue without consent" rather than "why didn't you do X, Y, and Z?  You were just asking to be raped."

Unfortunately, there is a high prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. This issue has been turning up in the media a lot lately, and hopefully all the attention will lead to some much needed changes in how campuses handle reports of sexual assault. Because right now, a lot of campuses are majorly screwing up when it comes to supporting survivors. While you may not want to contemplate the thought of being assaulted while at school, it can be helpful to find out ahead of time what resources are available in the event that it happens to you or someone else you know. Knowledge is power, as they say, and at least knowing where to go for help when you need it most can make it much easier to recover, heal and deal.

There's some question as to whether or not seeking out survivors resources provided by the school is a good move.  I've been privileged to work on a campus where there was an on campus resource for survivors to access, complete with an anonymous help line and a person in charge who worked hard to eradicate victim blaming from the program and fought openly against rape culture on campus. I have also heard untold horror stories from Scarleteen users and others about how campus resources completely failed them in the wake of their assault.

Even on a campus where the survivors resources are sound and well trained, there is often a problematic legal issue. If you are sexually assaulted and end up bringing charges against the university for not handling your report well (mistreating you, protecting the perpetrators, and so forth), if you are in the U.S. they can legally demand to view your student health records. That includes any records from any mental health resources you used on campus (which is something that many sexual assault survivors utilize in the aftermath of the assault). In other words, your health records are not considered confidential under this instance. There have been movements by some states to try and close the legal loopholes that allow colleges to do this, but it remains to be seen what the results of that legislation actually look like in practice

That given, though I wish I could, I can't in good faith say that going to campus resources is always your best first move. You will, of course, have a better sense of the resources and their reliability than I will, and if you think they'll help, then please utilize them. But given the general patterns, your best option may be a resource off-campus. Many areas with a nearby college will have community sexual assault services that intend to serve the student population. There are also a growing number of informal support networks for survivors online, even on places like Tumblr (We Believe You is a good starting place). People can share resources, experiences, and recovery tools with each other, and if you're struggling to find on the ground places to be supported, those networks can be invaluable.

In the end, finding your way in college involves research, experimentation, and a few missteps here or there.  My hope is that this guide works as a jumping off point and a cheat sheet, and that if you want to learn more you'll dig into the resources listed below.  Because the more knowledge you have, the less overwhelmed you'll be, and the more time and energy you'll be able to devote to exploring this new and exciting part of you life. 

Further Resources

Heath & Wellness

Dating & Sex

Sexual Assault

LGBTQA Specific

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  • Lisa Laman

If I could pull a “Letter to Me”… what would I communicate to teenage Lisa? What important thoughts about dating, relationships, life, and anything else would I say to my younger self in a letter?