Some of the most beloved classic movies about college may paint this period of time as being a nonstop, free-for-all sex party. But that's not even close to the case.
Like every type of human experience, sex in college is quite complicated. While movies and TV paint a picture of women being promiscuous and wanting nothing more than casual sex, this common image is not always the reality.
Here are a few things new first-year students — women and men — should know before hitting campus this fall:
1. Not everyone is having sex.
While there seems to be a pervasive myth that college is a monogamy-free island of deviance, plenty of students are busy doing other stuff (studying? eating? Netflixing?) with their time.
In fact, a 2013 study revealed that only 31.6% of college students reported having more than one sexual partner in the past year and 1 in 4 college students are still virgins, according to Kathleen Bogle, author of Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus.
"In college," Lily Herman, Wesleyan senior and the founder of the world's largest student-run college access organization, The Prospect, told Mic," women tend to have a lot more on their minds than sex or relationships, and the media [reducing] their time in college to what they're up to in the bedroom isn't doing them — or gender equality — much justice."
2. No one can decide who's actually getting it on.
The media loves to portray "hooking up" — and particularly women's roles in the phenomenon — as a cultural trend that changes with the times. Either they're having too much casual sex, they're too busy for any sex or they're letting Tinder destroy everything.
While overly general, the takeaway is that the stereotypes of women who do or do not "hook up" change a lot for a reason: Sexual expression is an individualized, personal experience that is often the sum of a series of choices and sentiments.
Ultimately there is no cohesive hooking up "trend." There are individual people with individual sex lives who make their own damn choices. "I think there's a lot more grey area to college relationships than people realize or the media talks about," Herman said.
3. Coming out can be great, but it's not easy for everyone.
College women's sexual experiences are almost always discussed from a heteronormative point of view, in which women are expected to attract, and be attracted to, men. In fact, while straight women may struggle to define what is most sexually satisfying to them, some queer students may feel prohibited from even acknowledging or acting on their sexuality. For example, a 2010 study revealed that 25% of LGBT students reported being harassed on campus.
Even when not blatantly harassed, LGBT students feel marginalized on campus. When University of Pennsylvania student "Elena" said she was in the Queer-Straight Alliance while rushing a sorority, "One girl was like, 'oh,' and I got cut from that house," she told Jezebel in 2010. "I think I chose my sorority because I knew there had been lesbians in the past in that house."
On top of that, students at religious colleges may feel restricted from being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity because doing so may break rules. One of Baylor University's most famous recent alumni, WNBA star Brittney Griner, said she couldn't come out during her college hoops days, in part because of the Baptist school's policies against homosexuality. Baylor has since amended its policy, but many other schools enforce similar policies
4. Relationships still totally exist.
The media's insistence on focusing on casual sex not only simplifies women's sexual experiences, but ignores the fact that plenty of people in college have traditional relationships. Of all long-distance relationships, 32.5% are among college students and 28% of married college graduates in 2013 attended the same college as their spouse, according to a Facebook Data Sciences study.
"He's been my first and only serious boyfriend, and now my last," Abby Lantzy, who graduated from James Madison University in 2013, told USA Today about her engagement to her high school and college boyfriend. "It's really comforting now to be engaged and have that constant reminder that we always love each other."
5. Not everybody is on the same page about sex when they start college.
Freshmen enter college with a huge range of sexual experiences, knowledge and cultural messaging that shapes with whom and how often they hook up. For instance, only 22 states and Washington, D.C., require comprehensive sex education (including information about what consent actually looks like), and only 13 of those require the information to be medically accurate.
This lack of education can lead to toxic sexual norms and even sexual assault. A recent poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation, for example, found that college students interpret the same sexual behavior differently: Fifty-four percent of students surveyed said a nod was a sign of sexual consent, while 40% said it was not. This lack of clarity was evident in another recent study, in which 1 in 3 college men endorsed the act of rape — but didn't identify it as rape.
This indicates that sex education — before and even during college — is key to improving women's sexual treatment on campus, as well as the sexual experiences of all.
6. Sexual assault is a pervasive reality.
An estimated 15.3% of freshman women reported an attempted or completed rape during their first year on campus — 18.6% when researchers accounted for women who reported more than one event, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Far too many women are taught that sexual assault or rape happens in dark alleys to girls who are "wasted" or look "slutty," perpetrated by nefarious strangers. In reality, a whopping 90% of college rape victims know the person who sexually assaulted them. On college campuses, these perpetrators tend to be serial offenders — in fact, one study found that serial rapists commit as many 9 out of 10 campus sexual assaults, Al Jazeera America reported in 2013.
Activists across the country, however, refuse to remain silent. From performance art to hashtag campaigns to valuable organizations, students are pushing back to help others recognize that, rather than teaching women to prevent being raped, we must start teaching rapists not to rape in the first place.
7. Yes, there's often still a double standard when it comes to sex.
You'd think we're past the idea that women can either be the prudish (the aspiring mommy, hopeless romantic) or the slut who beds every man they see. And yet, one would be wrong.
This dichotomy forces women into limiting boxes. What's more, women are often made to feel that they inadequately inhabit either: They're considered weird if they're not sexually active enough (and are "virgin-shamed"), or sluts if they're too sexually active (and are "slut-shamed"). What's more, this has nothing to do with their own pleasure or satisfaction.
To destroy this double standard, women should speak out when someone calls another girl a "slut" or "whore" based on the way she expresses her sexuality, and when somebody pressures a girl to be sexually active when she has chosen to be abstinent.
8. Masturbation? Just do it.
There's a weirdly pervasive myth that only guys masturbate. It's a myth that's not only inaccurate — 84.6% of women ages 25 to 29 reported that they have masturbated at least once in their lifetime, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of a 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior — but perpetuates internalized shame among many women.
When one rising freshman masturbated for the first time, she told Mic she felt "horrible and found it so repulsive, especially because I thought I was the only one and I felt like a freak. How could I do something so disgusting, especially since I had no idea about it prior?" While she eventually realized that masturbation, and feelings of sexual desire generally, are "normal" she still believes that far too many girls enter college believing their sexuality "is typically something to be embarrassed about."
In fact, this stigma seems to have a real effect on female behavior: As the aforementioned FiveThirtyEight report found, 37.2% of women ages 25 to 29 — compared to 14.7% of men the same ages — claimed they only masturbated a few times per year.
But women can and do masturbate for plenty of good reasons. According to Planned Parenthood, masturbation is healthy: It releases stress and physical tension, can act as a natural painkiller for ailments like menstrual cramps and/or back pain, and, ultimately, is just pleasurable.
"We know that pleasure makes people feel good," Dr. Lauren Streicher, author of Sex Rx: Hormones, Health And Your Best Sex Ever, told the Huffington Post in January. "It is extremely important that women have an appreciation of their own anatomy and how to self-pleasure."
College women are faced with the complex reality of having to navigate their sexuality within the context of a broader culture still mired in double standards, and in which male sexuality is the default and priority. The media may try to frame women's sexual decisions as following hard and fast rules, but women don't approach their sex lives in a single way because there's no single type of woman.The only thing that's certain, however, is that as more women open up and talk about their experiences, the easier it will be retire the rules.