Everyone seems to have an opinion about what college students should buy when they go back to school. And a lot of it sadly seems to have to do with promoting consumer behaviors rather than students’ well-being.
As someone who has been teaching college students for about 6 years now – and whose work and teaching focuses on sex, love and relationships – I thought I might throw out a few ideas about 10 things college students might consider in this area. None of them involve buying pricey cars, laptops or shoes. Rather, my suggestions – which I think apply well to non-college students and older adults, too – are to:
1. Get the phone numbers of at least a few good friends. College is a great time to meet new people, to get out and socialize, to go to parties, to date/hang out/make out, and to explore friendships and relationships. Sometimes shyness gets in the way of connections. And sometimes when you’re lonely, you need a friend. Other times you need a ride. Or someone to share a deep secret, heartbreak or worry with. In the first week or two of school, aim to get the phone numbers of at least a few (maybe 3-5?) people who you like. Store them in your cell phone and/or write them down wherever. Save them. You never know when you will need them. Get on Facebook or other social networking sites too and add friends to expand your circle. Make friends, make plans, go out and lean on each other.
2. Figure out where to get screened for sexually transmissible infections (STI). If you have ever had oral, vaginal or anal sex, consider getting tested for STIs including HIV. Many of my students say that they don’t ask potential partners whether or not they’ve been tested because they themselves have not been tested, and thus they don’t want to have that conversation and admit to their own unknown status. So they don’t ask which, of course, isn’t so awesome considering that chlamydia is strikingly common among women and men under age 25, as is HPV (and condoms don’t fully protect against HPV). Oh, and men can’t get tested for HPV which means many of them are carriers without knowing it. Local Planned Parenthood clinics are a good option as are campus health centers and local or state health departments.
3. Spend some time thinking about what you want. You can’t predict forever but you can give some thought to your first semester. Are you looking for a fling or for a partner? Can you find the courage to be honest with yourself and with others? To start a friends with benefits only if it’s clear to your friend what you do (and don’t) want? To let the person you’re hanging out with know where they stand? To answer tough questions with honesty, even if it means you might lose that person’s affection? Growing up and having adult relationships involves all of this stuff. It’s not always fun, and sometimes it’s very sad, but the risks are part of the process.
4. Buy condoms and/or dental dams and/or lube. Or get them for free at your dorm, campus health center, a local health clinic or a campus health fair, depending on what’s available to you. Even if you aren’t planning to have sex or use any of these, your friends might. And they might seriously knock on your door at 2am asking if you have a condom. Better to say “top drawer, now go away” and have them be safe than have them be condom-less and sorry. Latex and polyurethane condoms offer very good protection against some but not all STIs and using water-based lubricant can make sex more pleasurable or comfortable. And yes, you can pass several STIs via oral sex.
5. Figure out where to get healthcare. STI testing isn’t the only game in town. Women who are 18 or older, or who are sexually active, should consider having annual gyn exams. Plus, women and men may be interested in birth control options at some point. And guys need good healthcare too: learning how to perform testicular self-examination is key (testicular cancer strikes younger men more than many realize) and you may have other health needs that are important. Find out what your health insurance does and does not cover. Learn about your family’s medical history and share it with your healthcare provider (a personal or family history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, alcoholism are all particularly relevant to sexual health).
6. Exercise. Try to focus on working out to promote your overall health rather than worrying about how little or how much fat you have in your body or how much you weigh, unless your healthcare provider has other recommendations. When you’re fit, your cardiovascular system can do awesome things like pump blood throughout your body in ways that promote positive sexual health. This includes healthy blood flow to your genitals during times of sexual arousal, which then carries oxygen to your sexual and reproductive parts, thus promoting the health of those tissues. Find something active that you enjoy – hiking, biking, long walks, basketball, running, soccer, swimming, badminton, squash, lifting weights, ultimate frisbee – and go for it. Run around, make friends, laugh like a kid and all the while, know how awesome it will be for your sex life to rock out your heart. Exercise can help you shape your body in ways that you may find strong and attractive, too, which may help you to feel more confident if you get partially or fully naked with a sexual partner.
7. Be flexible. Even if you’re not having sex right this very second, or right this very year, you will likely have sex one day. (Oh, and if you are having sex right this very second? Put the laptop down please and get back to it.) When you do have sex, you will have way more options in the bedroom if you are physically flexible. That doesn’t mean that sex is only about acrobatic positions – that’s not necessarily the case at all. In fact, there is enormous joy and intimacy to be had (not to mention pleasure and orgasm) in some of the most common sex positions. All I’m saying is that flexibility opens doors and possibilities. Look into healthy stretching, yoga, or other ways to learn to touch your toes.
8. Learn about sex. Sign up for a human sexuality at your class – check out whatever the equivalent is of your departments in health, development, family studies or psychology. Read a quality book about sex – I recently wrote one about sex called Because It Feels Good but there are other good sex books out there too. I also like Becoming Orgasmic, For Each Other, The New Male Sexuality, Sex for One, Getting Bi, and The V Book, depending on your interests and curiosities.
9. Don’t smoke (or stop smoking if you currently do). It may seem like a harmless pasttime now but smoking carries a risk of long term consequences – and not just related to heart disease and cancer. Smoking is also linked with sexual problems including erectile dysfunction. Oh, and short term? Nicotine has been linked to impaired sexual arousal in both women and men. If you’re hunting for a job, try your best to find a job in a non-smoking environment. If you’re trying to stop smoking, call your campus health center or community clinic to ask about smoking cessation classes, or talk to your healthcare provider.
10. Take a risk. That’s right- see what happens if you give love a shot. So you think you found someone amazingly awesome even though you least expected it? That happens. And it takes people of all ages by surprise when it does. Sometimes the path is easy, other times it is fraught with complications. Everyone has their own comfort level with what they’re willing to risk. Some say you have to risk big in order to win big. Others shy away from the possibility of love, particularly if they worry about getting hurt, and perhaps especially if they have been down that road before. Some people settle for someone who is a “so-so” fit, the whole playing second fiddle thing. There is no one right answer to this. See what works for you and try to not subscribe to any pat answers of how things “should” play out.
An interesting thing about the college years is that people, developmentally speaking, move from what we call black/white thinking to grayscale thinking – from seeing things as right/wrong or good/bad to more complex and nuanced. So don’t let anyone tell you that you’re doing it all wrong. You may stumble a bit, but you will make your way. Sex, love and relationships are tricky but there are people rooting for you, too. I certainly am.
Learn more in Dr. Herbenick’s book, Because It Feels Good: A Woman’s Guide to Sexual Pleasure & Satisfaction, and follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor