Sexual Health

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain the importance of making wise decisions regarding sexuality.
  • List actions that help to protect against sexual assault.


We form many types of relationships with others during our college years, each with varying levels of intimacy. Classmates may become life-long friends while roommates might remain acquaintances. Some students fall in love with a good friend, and many others date several people to discover what they’re actually looking for in a lifelong partner. The level of involvement between individuals depends on a variety of factors, such as shared interests and experiences, complementary personalities, being in the same place at the same time, admiration, or attraction. Whether we call it dating, hanging out, or seeing someone, it’s perfectly normal for college students to seek out meaningful relationships (or not), to be interested in going out with someone, or to remain single and focus on our goals. It’s important we each move at our own pace, within our own comfort levels, to discover and honor emerging feelings, and then form relationships accordingly.

Nervousness, misinformation, uncertainty, questions, and concerns about all things sexual are universal feelings, so college students can take comfort in the fact they’re not alone or drastically different from their peers. Most importantly, however, is that students educate themselves about relationships, sex, sexuality, equality, and what they need to know and do in order to protect their sexual health now and throughout their entire lives.

Sexual Decisions

Dancing couple

There is a stereotype that sexual activity is very prominent among college students. One survey found that most college students think other students have had an average of three sexual partners in the past year, yet 80 percent of those answering said they themselves had zero or one sexual partner. In other words, college students as a whole are not engaging in sexual activity nearly as much as they think they are.

Misperceptions of what others are doing may lead to unrealistic expectations or feelings, but engaging in sexual activity is a personal decision best made together by two consenting adults, not something one should feel pressured into doing, whether that pressure comes from someone else or from ourselves. One important consideration of sexual decision-making is making the advance preparations necessary to protect ourselves against unplanned pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases. Information and support about some of the many ways to address those important responsibilities are available from personal physicians, certain community agencies, and the College’s health office.

Alcohol and Sexual Activity

Although almost all college students know the importance of protection against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy, these things happen fairly often for many reasons. Obviously, we don’t always do the right thing even when we know it, but poor decisions or those it-won’t-happen-to-me feelings are more likely to happen when drinking or using drugs. Some 400,000 eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old college students a year engage in unprotected sexual activity after drinking, and 100,000 report having been too intoxicated to know if they had consented to the sexual activity or not.

While the ideal is to remain sober and focused on our studies, it is also a good idea to prioritize our safety and that of our friends while at parties or other social events. Some specific strategies are detailed in the next section below.

Sexual Assault and Date Rape

Everyone deserves to be involved in healthy relationships or to feel safe anywhere they go, yet, unfortunately, sexual assault is a serious problem in America generally and among college students in particular. Consider the following facts:

  • About a third of all dating relationships involve some physical violence.
  • One in six women and one in ten men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.
  • About a fourth of sexual assault victims are in the typical college age range of eighteen to twenty-four years old.
  • As many as one in four women experience unwanted sexual intercourse while attending college.
  • In more than three fourths of rape cases, the victim knows the perpetrator.
chalk on sidewalk: Flirting is not consent

Among college students, assault by a stranger is the least common because campus police departments take many measures to help keep students safe on campus. Nonetheless, use common sense to avoid situations where you might be alone in a vulnerable place. Walk with a friend if you must pass through a quiet place after dark. Don’t open your door to a stranger. Don’t take chances. For more information and ways to reduce your risk of sexual assault, see

Prevention of acquaintance rape begins with the awareness of its likelihood and then taking deliberate steps to ensure you stay safe at and after the party:

  • Go with a friend and don’t let someone separate you from your friend.
  • Agree to stick together and help each other if it looks like things are getting out of hand.
  • If your friend has too much to drink, don’t leave her or him alone. Plan to leave together and stick to the plan.
  • Be especially alert if you become separated from your friend, even if you are only going off alone to look for the bathroom. You may be followed.
  • Be cautious if someone is pressuring you to drink heavily.
  • Trust your instincts if someone seems to be coming on too aggressively. Get back to your friends.
  • Know where you are and have a plan to get home if you have to leave abruptly.

About half of sexual assaults on college students are date rape. Follow these guidelines to lower the risk of sexual assault:

  • Make it clear you have limits on sexual activity. If there is any question that your date may not understand your limits, talk about your values and limits.
  • If your date initiates unwanted sexual activity of any sort, do not resist passively.
  • Be careful if your date is drinking heavily or using drugs. Avoid drinking yourself or drink very moderately.
  • Stay in public places where there are other people. Do not invite your date to your home before your relationship is well-established.
  • Trust your instincts if your date seems to be coming on too strong. End the date if necessary.
  • Pay attention for signs of an unhealthy relationship.
  • Don’t put your drink down where someone else may get to it. If your drink is out of your sight for even a moment, don’t finish it.
  • Never accept an open drink. Don’t accept a mixed drink that you did not see mixed from pure ingredients.
  • Never drink anything from a punch bowl, even if it’s nonalcoholic. You can’t know what may have been added into the punch.
  • If you experience unexpected physical symptoms that may be the result of something you drank or ate, get to an emergency room and ask to be tested.

If you are sexually assaulted, always talk to someone. Call a rape crisis center, your student health center, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE for a confidential conversation. It is never the fault of the person who was victimized, and there’s nothing shameful or wrong with sharing what happened. Talking to someone is an important step in the healing process and could ensure the safety of other students.

Each and every student deserves healthy relationships and safe experiences, and while colleges do everything they can to provide the kind of environment that fosters positivity and personal respect, it is also important to prepare and protect ourselves and our sexual health in order to have the best educational experience possible.