A Prescription for Parents

How do you know when your child at college needs help


We all want to fit in with our peers. During the college years, the ability to do this is often key to a healthy, happy, and productive experience. In fact, for many students, the ability to make the transition from dependent children to independent adults hinges on the kinds of relationships they form and how those relationships make them feel connected to others. To make these connections, some join athletic teams; others join fraternities and sororities; some get involved in student organizations; others get internships where they spend time with like-minded individuals. And, not surprisingly, still others seek out sexual intimacy to feel connected and to fit in and form relationships.

It’s true that sexual intimacy offers an enormous sense of connection, but for college students, this method of forming relationships frequently backfires and does not offer the hoped-for sense of security. If one of the partners believes that sex implies a level of intimacy, but the other sees it as a one-night form of recreation, the resulting alienation and emotional pain for both partners disrupts their efforts to find a sense of belonging.

Gender Differences

Both males and females are at risk for using sexual promiscuity to ease the internal pain of feeling disconnected in the college environment—but they use it differently.

Females, more often than males, tend to connect the act of sex with emotional commitment. Most feel more emotionally secure and have a greater sense of emotional well being when there is a sense of intimate connection—and on the flip side, feel a greater sense of betrayal when their intimate connection turns out to be a short-term mistake.

Males too use sex to manage some of the pressures of college life, but in different ways than their female partners. At this age, many males use sexual “conquests” to build their self-esteem. Each new partner boosts their sense of feeling desirable and “liked,” but they are not looking for a long-term commitment as a way to feel connected. They build their sense of belonging one partner at a time.

Despite their different reasons for using sex to establish a sense of connection, both males and females may cope with their fear of being alone by going from one sexual partner to another. For the moment, this relieves their feeling of loneliness. But without emotional commitment, the morning brings a rebound of loneliness.

In some extreme cases, young adults who get into the pattern of frequent sexual behavior find themselves addicted. The National Council on Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity recognizes the serious nature of this problem and offers a quick self-test to help identify patterns of sexual addiction. The test asks questions about one’s obsessive thoughts, compulsive actions, and feelings of loss of control. You can access the test at their website at www.ncsac.org.

Internet Sex
Students, both male and female, who have difficulty making personal connections with fellow students, have another option these days to create a sense of belonging. They can have on-line sexual encounters and gain the same comforting benefits, without risking face-to-face rejection. This way of exploring one’s sexuality is particularly negative. It further isolates a person in a room with a computer, taking away the opportunity to get out and make those personal connections so necessary to mental health. It also puts this student at great risk when he or she agrees to meet the online partner. It is important to set up initial contacts in safe neutral environments as people are often not what they advertise in their personal ads.

The Consequences

Like those using alcohol, drugs or an eating disorder to cope with daily pressures, many promiscuous young adults deny the problem and ignore the potential negative consequences. Most young collegians arrive at their schools with little or no sexual experience but as in other areas, want their peers to think they are sophisticated and experienced. Yet, they bring with them their family and religious values and face intense guilt and shame when they find themselves jumping from partner to partner. These feelings on top of the other pressures in college life are fuel for stress-related problems.

Another problem with using promiscuity as a coping mechanism is due to what I would call an invulnerability attitude. At this age, young adults know all about the dangers of unprotected sex with many partners: They know about STDs including HIV/AIDS, and they know about the physical, emotional, and life-altering risks of pregnancy and abortion. But they never think any of this will happen to them—especially when this group uses alcohol to take off the stress of meeting people of the opposite sex, forgetting that it also takes away their ability to make sound decisions.

The risk among college students of contracting an STD is very high. According to a 2002 Surveillance Report by the Centers for Disease Control, the cumulative number of people ages 15 to 24 diagnosed with HIV/AIDS is 40,896. This is in addition to the more than four million young adults ages 20 –24 infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia. I t would be naïve to think that none of these infected individuals are on college campuses having unprotected sex with their classmates.

Sexually active female students with numerous partners also gamble with their future given the high number of unintended pregnancies and resulting abortions in this age group. The CDC Abortion Surveillance 2000 lists 249,403 abortions among the 20-24 age group. Faced with the emotional weight of an unintended pregnancy that could alter their career plans and shame their families, both males and females are at risk for becoming another depression/dropout statistic.

Far too many young adults learn the hard way that sexual promiscuity has long-term and serious consequences.