UC Davis Magazine Online
Volume 20
Number 4
Summer 2003
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Mother/daughter illustrationIt’s a difficult topic for parents to broach, but a survey shows that there’s still much that college-age children need to learn.

By Marion Franck

People say a parent’s job is “done” when the child leaves for college, but people also say a parent’s job is “never done.” Perhaps some jobs are done and some aren’t, and although it may be too late to change a child’s eating or exercise habits, most parents continue to weigh in on other issues. Finances and career are obvious long-term topics. What about sex?

Is sex a topic that must be handled before college or not at all?

For parents who discussed sex with their teenager, or for parents who didn’t discuss it but felt they should have, does the beginning of college sweep the issue off the table?

Listen to 25 peer counselors in sexuality at UC Davis, and you will want to keep talking to your student. View statistics on sexual activity in college, and even the most reluctant parent will feel the need to say something. If the essence of a parent’s job is communicating information that will lead a child to be healthy and happy, that job is not over when it comes to sex.

Let’s start with statistics.


In 2002, UC Davis participated in the National College Health Assessment survey, which covered everything from stress and alcohol use to sleep patterns and sex. What emerged was some good news and some disquieting news.

Pat Lindsay, who tabulated local survey results and directs the peer counselors in sexuality, puts the good news bluntly. “We learned that it’s a myth that college students are having sex like rabbits with everything that moves.”

On the contrary, 37 percent of students at UC Davis reported anonymously that they did not have sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral or anal) with anyone in the previous 12-month period. Another 45 percent had sex with only one partner; 11 percent had sex with two. Only 7 percent had more than two partners.

Interestingly, the myth of widespread sexual activity prevails among students as well as parents. Asked to estimate how often other UC Davis students engaged in vaginal intercourse during the previous 30 days, only 4 percent of students correctly guessed that the majority (56 percent) did not have vaginal intercourse.

Although students overestimate the incidence of vaginal intercourse, the survey suggests that oral sex is common, probably more so than in past decades, in part as a form of birth control. Unfortunately, other forms of birth control are not used sufficiently, and oral sex itself is generally practiced without protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

Perhaps most worrisome, only 50.9 percent of students reported using condoms during their most recent vaginal intercourse. Some students may use other forms of birth control, but those other forms do not protect them from sexually transmitted diseases, which have grown in number and variety since their parents were in school.


Indeed, sexually transmitted diseases top the list of concerns of the peer counselors in sexuality who volunteer through the Cowell Student Health Center, offering presentations on sex and responding to students who ask questions anonymously by phone or e-mail.

“Some students think that they need to have vaginal intercourse to get something,” says one peer counselor, when, in fact, just having intimate contact with a partner can lead to infection. And many students believe everything has a solution.

“They think there’s some medicine that will cure them,” the counselor says, “or that if you don’t show symptoms, you’re not sick. The ignorance scares me, really.” (Sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B are incurable.)

Peer counselors receive phone calls from students who say, “I think I had sex. What do I do?” or “Is the male pill available yet?” (It’s a long way off.) Around Valentine’s Day, phone calls spiked with questions like, “If I do this, what could happen?” On Monday, callers asked about the morning-after pill.

Many parents believe their students received detailed information in high school, but by a show of hands, two-thirds of the peer counselors described their own high school sexual education as insufficient or poor. Many were also disappointed in the information they got from their parents.

Says one peer counselor, “I have two very liberal parents, yet they are absolutely afraid to talk about sex. They gave me books about ‘what’s happening to your body.’ I don’t think that takes the place of having someone there to talk to you and answer your questions.”

Not everyone shares this desire to talk with parents, and even some peer counselors admit to squirming when they’re watching a movie with their parents and a sex scene comes on. Others want to protect their parents from information that might upset them, and some simply want to be independent.


Yet, when listening to the students, you can detect a note of longing.

“My parents tend to strip the emotional weight from talking about sex,” says one peer counselor; it’s as if they were talking about a bad business proposition. “My mother says ‘Don’t have sex, because you’ll just get too attached.’ And I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, Mom, if a guy leaves me or we break up, how am I going to talk to you about the experience? How do I come to you for emotional support?’”

Students also want their parents to remember that it’s normal for young people to have sexual feelings. “Parents tell their kids, ‘You’re not old enough for sex. Focus on studying,’” says one female peer counselor. “A lot of parents are telling them it’s wrong to have the feelings they have. They make them feel guilty.”

“I really wish I could talk to my parents,” echoes another, “but my Dad’s stance is ‘Be discreet, be responsible, and if anyone ever asks me, it never happened.’ So he has already closed the door. I want to say, ‘Dad, I met the most wonderful guy in my life. I never thought it would ever happen.’ But I can’t talk to him about any of that, even though I’d love to share my happiness.”


Sometimes, parents create roadblocks by accident.

The simple absence of conversation can create a problem. Behavior that parents thought was out of bounds when their child was in junior high school may now be more acceptable, but the student doesn’t know that.

In other cases, the parent has drawn a line in the sand. Once the student crosses it—by having sexual intercourse, for example—it’s difficult to open up. “They feel they can’t talk to their parents anymore,” says one peer counselor. “They’ve done something their parents told them not to do.”

Occasionally cultural background is the problem, and differences may be insurmountable. “In my family,” says one Asian-American student, “sex is a totally taboo subject. As far as we know, we were just dropped off by the stork.” Divergent views on homosexuality can also fall into this category. On the other hand, if a parent prepares ahead of time, imagining how to respond to difficult news, the announcement of first intercourse or even of homosexuality need not break the bond of caring.


Students’ greatest fear is rejection. If they feel accepted, they may be open to a conversation that includes essential factual material, information about sexually transmitted disease, for example, as well as hopes and dreams about romance.

Communication between parent and child is a dance, different for each set of parents and children. In some cases, the wise parent decides not to ask questions, because he knows he cannot handle certain answers. In others, the parent finds in an adult child a person who is surprisingly willing to talk about life’s dilemmas, if the parent simply stops and listens. Few parents would throw aside the opportunity to speak with their children about romance and love. Sex is simply part of the story.

Marion Franck is a Davis writer and regular contributor to campus publications for parents. Illustration by Craig Farris, UC Davis Editorial/Design.


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