Pillow Talk: What's unspoken about sex at Dartmouth

by Debora Hyemin Han | 5/19/17 2:10am

Many students have become blasé to the “hookup culture” on college campuses. For Dartmouth, the phrase falls into the same categories of “Greek life” and “drinking culture” — things students don’t seem to question after a couple weeks on campus. What fails to follow this normalization of the casual hookup is an open conversation regarding various aspects of sexual health and wellbeing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 2015 saw yet another increase in reports for all three nationally reported sexually transmitted infections — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Reports for chlamydia, which amounted to approximately 1.5 million cases nationally, were at the “highest number of annual cases of any condition ever reported to CDC.” While the 15-24 age group makes up about one quarter of the sexually active population, it also accounts for nearly half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted infections that occur in the United States each year.

Given these statistics, it seems logical that high levels of sexual activity will increase the probability for exposure to and spreading of STIs. According to a campus-wide survey conducted by The Dartmouth from April 16 to April 20, 63 percent of students said that sexually transmitted diseases and STIs are things they worry about when they are sexually active. However, whether these worries will affect their willingness to have sexual encounters was less clear. Forty-eight percent of students either strongly or somewhat agree that concern about STDs and STIs affect their willingness to have sexual encounters, while 36 percent strongly or somewhat disagreed.

Cindy Pierce, local author and self-described social sexuality educator, said that she was surprised at the lack of knowledge students overall have about these issues, especially in light of the internet and the access to information it provides. She said that young adults today are “even more off track” than her generation was when they were growing up in the 1980s, a time that she described as “repressed” and “conservative.”

Karina Korsh ’19 also disputed whether the narrative of progress in gender equality is as powerful as people have been led to think. She said that while people may think feminism has gained traction and “new notions” of female sexuality are more widely accepted, there are still aspects of society that have yet to fully embrace the progression.

“When we have these sexual norms that are around for so long, discussion with society about feminism can help spark change but it’s not enough, and no change is going to appear this quickly unless we talk about sexuality,” she said.

According to Pierce, the freedom to hook up seems to be a form of feminism, when in reality, it reinforces male-dominant relationship dynamics which often prioritize male satisfaction.

“It’s a false sense of empowerment [for women],” Pierce said. “When your body is your currency, what people think about you sexually is your currency and that’s your power.”

Samisha Khangaonkar ’19 agreed that female sexual pleasure is not a high priority in hookup culture, saying that people rarely talk about female sexual pleasure, nor consider it as much as male pleasure in sexual interactions.

Korsch said that a way to change this trend of male pleasure-based sexual interaction is to encourage pleasure-positive sexual education, which she called the “antithesis” of abstinence-based sexual education. It emphasizes safe sex materials, communicating with a partner and making sexual health a natural part of life — “not something to be shamed, especially for women,” according to Korsch.

“[Pleasure-positive sexual education is] so powerful, and I think that can be transferred on college campuses by talking about what could be wrong with hookup culture, and how [it] tends to centralize male pleasure,” she said.

Korsch also said that Movement Against Violence facilitations for new members of Greek life highlight the way people talk about hookups in a group setting. She said that, oftentimes, the ways hookups are talked about in the Greek system can be “dehumanizing” and does not align with the pleasure-positive model of sexuality. Advocating for a pleasure-positive view on sex is not yet normalized on campus for both heterosexual relationships and same-sex relationships, or for relationships with gender fluid people, she said.

Conversations about STIs and STDs are also not yet normalized, as 84 percent of students responding to The Dartmouth survey said that STIs and STDs were either not very commonly or not commonly at all spoken about. Khangaonkar said that an explanation this could be that students forget about the possibility of being infected. Pregnancies are “more [at] the forefront of people’s minds,” she said.

In the spring of 2016, the College sent out a health survey with a 13 percent response rate from the undergraduate student body. Sixty-nine percent of students who responded to the survey said that they had not been tested for STIs within the past 12 months of the polling date.

Korsch agreed that the awareness of the possibility of pregnancy is more common than the awareness of the possibility for STIs. It is less normal to talk about STIs than it is to talk about pregnancies, she said.

Chris Meyer ’17, a MAV facilitator on campus, said that STIs fall into the general category of taboo subject matter, — and that illness, especially in its connection to sexuality, is something people avoid talking about openly. In his experience, he has only spoken about the topic in general with “one or two close friends.”

Indeed, respondents from The Dartmouth’s recent survey were divided on whether they would reveal and seek help from their friends if they had an STI. Thirty-eight percent of respondents said yes, 33 percent said no and 29 percent said they were unsure. Students said they were much more willing to reveal and seek help from third parties — 79 percent of students said they would seek help from health services from the College and 69 percent said they would seek help from health services outside the College.

Director of Dick’s House clinical medical services Ann Bracken said that many students come to Dick’s House for STI screenings, and many students are open about their sexual health with providers. She also said that she believes most students are responsible when it comes to STIs, even if it is perceived to it be taboo. She said that students will likely come get tested if they don’t use protection.

According to The Dartmouth’s survey, 97 percent of respondents said they have not gotten an STD or STI while at Dartmouth, but 25 percent say that they know of friends and other people at Dartmouth who have gotten STIs or STDs while at Dartmouth.

Alcohol is also often linked to hookup culture across all college campuses, but at Dartmouth, the D-Plan and the small town setting also play large roles in accentuating the attractiveness of “the hookup.”

Pierce said that it is likely Greek houses dominate party culture because it is the “only party available.” Rather than focusing just on alcohol itself and how it leads to hookups, she noted that the domination of men in the space was another complicating factor in the hookup culture overall.

Khangaonkar also said that she believes alcohol and sex can exist independently, but that alcohol does seem to have an effect on hookup culture for women.

“As women at Dartmouth, we face a lot of pressure to participate in hookup culture, and one medium I see people using to kind of help ease that is through the form of alcohol,” she said.

Meyer also said alcohol can act as a “social lubricant,” especially if they fall into the stereotypical and often awkward “super casual hookup” category. Meyer said he draws the line, however, when alcohol leads to sexual violence and situations where predators and frequent offenders use alcohol as “a tool to incapacitate people they want to assault.” The idea of the “accidental,” where violent acts masquerade as accidental hooking up, can also blur the line between hooking up and sexual violence, he said.

Overall, Korsch said that she believes hookup culture originates from both a self-development imperative, in which people don’t seek relationships because they view college as a time to “focus on themselves,” and the D-Plan, which makes prolonged relations difficult.

“When you’re only here for ten weeks, there’s less of an incentive to create an intimate connection,” she said. “It’s not a Dartmouth-only problem though; it’s going on in the vast majority of college campuses too.”

Korsch said that the conversations about sexual health vary depending on the communities that people are, but that there generally is no normalized, “substantial” conversation about sexual health. She also said that people will speak about sexual health in “very limited ways,” especially if they come into the conversation without much background information.

The Health and Wellness Center, Sexperts, MAV, the Safer Sex Bar and other organizations on campus aim to inform the student body about various aspects of sexual health. Fifty-three percent of students from The Dartmouth survey were “not sure” about how well the College’s health services have addressed student issues with STDs and STIs, while 22 percent believe they have not done enough and 23 percent say they have one the right amount.

The Wellness Center’s healthy relationships and sexual health specialist Tong Fei said that Sexperts also work with Dick’s House to train on health matters, such as the most common STIs, as well as on helping students navigate their sexual health. Fei’s role is to help facilitate conversations about sex on campus, as well as provide materials for safer sex habits, she said. Building a relationship of trust with a medical care provider or a sexpert or counselor is important for students to be able to talk about sexual issues, she said.

“What we are trying to do is … put a face behind who you can actually go to to talk about this,” Fei said.

Pierce said that the addition of Fei to the Wellness Center is “huge” for Dartmouth in terms of sexual health on campus, and that the shifts in residential life to create communities has helped to create conversations about all issues on campus, including race, gender, religion and sexuality. However, she said that those who “need it the most” are not exposed to conversations about healthy sexual habits. Athletic teams and fraternities and sororities should have more required programming regarding sexual health, despite the fact that some people believe that it is not helpful, she said.

“I think of it as surround sound — constantly hearing it through a number of different ways, rather than hearing it once and checking the box once, is really important,” she said. “Dartmouth has it, but it needs to require it more.”

Meyer, who facilitates MAV sessions for Greek houses, said that these conversations about sexual health are not likely to occur because hookups lack the intimacy and comfort that is necessary for honest discussion and are usually founded on a “base physical attraction.”

He also said that there still remains a strong sociocultural — and distinctly untrue — perspective that men are only interested in having sex, whereas women are likely to “put the brakes on” and have more conversations about the issue.

Small scale change and modeling ideal behavior when it comes to healthy sexual habits is the best method to bring about change, he said. Having conversations with friends about what happens beyond the hookup can be especially beneficial, he said.

“I found that those conversations might not happen a lot, but once one person goes and break the ice and admits that they aren’t just going out and hooking up with strangers and having a great time ... [and] once you admit that you’re imperfect and have had problems and strange thoughts, other people generally jump on that bandwagon,” he said.