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November 3, 2000

Educators Discuss Student Sexual Activity

Students at UW-River Falls probably are not as sexually active as their fellow students think they are. This is according to Alice Reilly-Myklebust, coordinator of student health services at UW-RF, who referred to a survey of the sexual activities of students.

"This may create a certain amount of anxiety in students," Reilly-Myklebust said, "because they think there is something going on out there that they are missing out on. They may feel there is something wrong with them, because they arenıt having more sexual experiences."

Sexuality among college students, including those at UW-RF, was the topic of a day-long conference, "Sex and the American College Student," held on Nov. 2 at UW-RF. The gathering was the first of its kind in the Midwest, and one of only a few of its kind to be held in the nation.

However, there is little doubt that there is plenty of sexual activity on college campuses.

A study of 1,000 UW-Madison students found that of students between 18 and 23, 75 percent of males and 60 percent of females are sexually active.

Issues addressed by speakers at the conference included an overview of sexual activity among college students, a discussion of sexual development and sexual orientation, and a look at the ways women are objectified through media and advertising. The conference concluded with a discussion of the responsibilities that college and university faculty, staff, and health care providers have to students.

Dr. Edward Ehlinger served as the dayıs leader and moderator, bringing to the conference his expertise gained through years as a pediatrician and his role as director and chief health officer of Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

In his keynote address, sociology Professor John DeLamater of UW-Madison described the stages of sexual development, beginning when children develop a sense of being male or female and begin exploring their bodies, through adolescence, when they should begin to realize that they have control over the sexual aspects of their bodies and their sexual behavior.

DeLamater said this is a critical period because if children donıt feel they have control over their sexuality they will have lower sexual standards. "We need to give kids information on sexuality, so they can make responsible decisions. We need to begin teaching them in kindergarten, and build on that information as they mature," he said.

In young adulthood, he said, sexuality and relationships are important. Sexual orientation has probably been established, and they will set sexual standards: for example, they may practice abstinence; they may be somewhat permissive, having sexual relations only with someone they love; or, they may be permissive without affection, believing it is OK if you want to do it.

DeLamater identified four major issues concerning sexuality in young adulthood: those of consensus, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and problems created by alcohol.

Beth Zemsky, director of the University of Minnesota Gay, Lesbian, Transgender Programs Office, in her comments on sexual development and sexual orientation, reminded attendees that they canıt assume the young people they are talking with are all heterosexual. She said the average age when children realize they are not heterosexual is 14 years.

"In high school, they are not allowed to develop sexually, form relationships and so on, so they are at high risk for making bad decisions about their sexuality," she said.

Sociology Professor Michael Obsatz at Macalester College in St. Paul, in a discussion of women being objectified by the media, said we are creating a society of predators. Each minute, 1.3 women are raped, and one in three women will be raped in her lifetime, he said.

Giving numerous examples of how women are portrayed negatively by the media, he said, "Women are objects. They are lifeless, so if you abuse a woman, you havenıt really abused a person, because she is an object, and she doesnıt have any feelings," he said.

Professor Fred Hebert, chair of UW-Stevens Pointıs School of Health, Exercise Science and Athletics, shared his insights as a panelist, saying he talks about love with his students. "We talk about all aspects of love: passion, intimacy and commitment, and try to understand what love is," he said.

Faye Perkins, assistant chair for the department of health and human performance at UW-RF, reiterated one of the messages of the day‹that kids need to be better educated about sexuality‹saying, "We assume that kids know a lot more about sexuality and sexual behavior than they actually do." Herbert confirmed this, saying he gives a 20-question test to his students at the beginning of each class, and they donıt do well on it.

Conference participants identified the challenges they face, and discussed ways to meet them. Spirituality is a part of sexuality, as are culture and values. One challenge is to help students understand how these components fit together to form a whole person. Other challenges are to provide students with the information they need to make informed decisions; the correct terminology for parts of their anatomy, the risks and practices of various types of sexual activities, and how to communicate with sexual partners.

Because alcohol consumption was identified as a major contributor to sex-related problems, it was suggested that there could be more things for students to do that donıt involve drinking. It would be important to make them fun, and to publicize them well, so students would participate.

Ehlinger summed up the responsibilities for the group, reminding them that their role is to help prepare students for life. They must work together as a community, sharing information and teaching, he said. They must help students feel safe to abstain from sex if they wish, or to engage in sexual activity if that is what they choose to do.

"Sex is an important way for us to express ourselves," he said. "Our job is to set up an environment that is supportive of healthy personal choices.

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