Though it is not the worst or the weirdest result of the coronavirus pandemic, the rich and flavorful lives of college students have shifted dramatically since lockdowns were put into place in March. While some schools attempted to provide a semblance of normalcy through hybrid classes, others made the very hard decision to shut down completely and move all courses, extra-curricular opportunities, and activities to a virtual setting. Regardless of which decision colleges made regarding their back-to-school plans, none of the options allowed schools to effectively address a crucial aspect of the college experience, one that allows students to better understand themselves, their desires and needs, and their bodies: sex.
This fall semester, many students across the country find themselves living out their college experience in their childhood homes via a computer screen, while others try to cope with the competing tensions of independent living on or near campus, maintaining Covid safety measures, and having an authentic and original college experience. One thing is certain: the equilibrium between social-distancing measures and college life is a difficult middle ground to find, especially when it comes to sex.
For example, Miles (all names changed to protect the privacy of the students interviewed), a New York University junior studying Fashion and Business, shared with me that he went back to campus in August to try and continue living his best life at school. While NYU first-year students found themselves under strict quarantine rules within their dorms, as an upperclassman Miles was able to live off-campus with some friends and create a “social pod.” Yet, he had recently begun a relationship with a new boyfriend who was not part of his pod and lived a subway ride away. Physically meeting up with his boyfriend felt tricky, since it involved a subway ride through the city that had been hit so hard by Covid in the spring. He explains: “the virus made the decision to visit [my boyfriend] feel much more costly.” As time in the Big Apple went on, Miles became more comfortable riding public transit to visit his boyfriend, by maintaining social distancing measures and wearing a mask. But, he is constantly trying to weigh in the comfort level of his podmates. Although he and his friends are trying to create a new normal for their college lives, Miles notes that before the pandemic “going out to clubs was a pretty regular thing for my friends and me.” Although Miles has a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend, he says that many of his friends, especially those who are Queer, are finding it harder to meet people, go on dates, and socialize.
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Amber, a self-identifying bi woman and a sophomore studying Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, explains the extra barrier faced by many Queer students as a result of the new college experience. “It was already hard enough to find other Queer women as a Queer woman, but now it is even harder.” Amber explains how casual sex has been an important aspect of her college experience thus far, but she is “having a lot less of it this fall.” She describes how “the Covid anxiety after sex, even beyond the normal post-sex anxiety that comes with a casual hook, makes it even harder to rid myself of guilt and think that the sexual experience was a good thing to do.”
Unfortunately, Amber contracted the coronavirus a few weeks ago, but now believes that after letting it run its course and quarantining (and luckily only experiencing a few mild symptoms), she can “go on without much worry.” Still, Amber’s social life continues to be impacted by the pandemic. “In some ways, it is good,” she explains. “Now, social life is much more personal and based around sitting down with a friend one-on-one, rather than meeting people at a party, which has resulted in greater development of deeper relationships. But, the lack of constant social interaction and non-dependable social life is stressful.” Amber further explains that, for her, social life is now dependent on active effort, which has been new and difficult. “If I am feeling lazy one week, it can be really hard to make plans and get out of my apartment.”
Lily, another sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Communications, agrees that the coronavirus has impacted the party scene a lot. “Parties were where students scoped potential partners and saw who to hook up with. Now, it is impossible to find new people; if you do want to put yourself out there, in terms of Covid, it can be quite dangerous.” Coming into the school year, Lily was on a break with her long-term boyfriend, and wanted to learn how to be alone. Still, she did not shut down the idea of hooking up with others: “I wanted to still have a college experience and get with more guys, but the pandemic clearly made this goal a challenging one, so there were limited options.”
Once she and her seven roommates tested positive for the coronavirus, these limited options seemed to expand, as her house decided that they would lift the rules because they each already had the virus. “After our time with the virus, we brought masks to social events, but we were not great about wearing them anymore. We also were not too worried about hooking up with people because the chance of re-infection seems slim, especially right after you have the virus.”
Sexual Health on Campus
I asked Lily, Amber, and Miles about their sexual health during this time and if things have changed for them since March. Their responses varied, yet all were similarly surprised by the consequences the pandemic had on their normal sexual health practices. For example, Lily described her friend’s experience with a recent STD test: “When she went to go take the test, she didn’t realize that, because of the virus, she wouldn’t get her result back for weeks. But, like most people, she wanted to get her result back fast to know if she did or did not have an STD.”
Amber discussed how she is not on birth control because she had been in a relationship with a woman, but, after her break up, she decided to get an IUD. However, the Student Health at her university “did not have any appointments available in light of the pandemic, making it extremely difficult to be motivated to seek out and get an IUD.” As for Miles, before March, he routinely took PrEP to minimize all risk of contracting HIV. However, after the spring quarantine and now that he is in a monogamous relationship, he didn’t feel that PrEP was necessary for him.
The problems, experiences, and opportunities within college social life are complicated enough outside of the complexities that come with a pandemic. College students constantly grapple with different challenges surrounding relationships, consent, and sexual health, especially when alcohol and drugs are in the mix (I talked about this more in depth in my interview with sex educator Logan Levkoff).
I don’t mean to sound too negative. Partying, meeting people, and having positive, meaningful relationships is an incredibly important piece of the college experience. But it’s all complicated enough before you add a highly-contagious virus into the mix. Whether you are a college-aged student on campus or at home, it is crucial that we all take care of and be kind to ourselves, our friends, and our communities, so we can soon get back to a college experience that includes safe and healthy sexual relationships.
About the Author
David Garnick is from the Philadelphia area and is a rising sophomore planning to double major in political science and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is also a representative on the Undergraduate Assembly and a member of its task force to promote PrEP on campus.
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