I have long been interested in the psychology of young people when it comes to sex and relationships. There’s a lot of confusion about how to deal with negative emotions such as jealousy and rejection that lead to low-self esteem, poor body image and unhealthy competition. All these can shroud the path to healthy relationships and satisfying sex.
In my own seminars with young people, I often ask them to throw their anonymous questions into a hat so that they can receive answers and insight without any fear of shame or embarrassment. I believe direct, frank discussion is the best educational tool when it comes to uncomfortable topics like how to find love and define intimacy.
That’s why I was thrilled to discover Cindy Pierce’s book, Sex, College and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture, which lives up to its name with everything college age kids should know. I love her answers to my questions in this interview below, where she includes insights into how watching porn affects college sex, what terminology to use for the TGNC community, and some funny stories about how consent apps have managed to work their magic without actually functioning properly! Enjoy.
Dr. Ava Cadell: What inspired you to write this book?
Cindy Pierce: The rampant below-average hookup sex in collage motivates me to provide information and guidance to as many students as I can in hopes that they choose to raise their standards. There is a lot of pressure on college students to be super knowledgeable and confident about sex, but the reality is that most of them are confused and have a lot of questions. College students continue to report that hookup sex is not particularly enjoyable or fulfilling, but they are willing to keep it in hopes that it will get better.
Telling friends that you hooked up is satisfying because you have checked the box and joined the club. When asked, students are willing to break the unspoken hookup code by admitting they were expecting more. Relentless messaging through social media, peers and the culture perpetuate the idea that if you just keep hooking up, you will eventually figure sex out. In reality, better sex requires communication, connection and vulnerability, which is juxtaposed to the rules of disconnected, pretend-to-not-care hookup sex.
Great sex is happening with people who are in tune with what gives them pleasure and comfortable enough to speak up and guide their partners. When students say, “It would be too awkward” to guide their partner, ask for consent, or discuss contraception and STIs, I remind them that being naked with another person and having sex is awkward. Two naked people having sex is a recipe for a wide variety of cringe-worthy moments, but communication can make it an excellent experience.
Before I got into this work, I assumed college students were dialed in with information on the Internet. The reverse is proving to be true. Reliable information improves people’s sex lives and helps reduce their anxieties.
AC: What advice do you have for college students who enjoy watching porn?
CP: Be a well-informed consumer. Masturbation is normal and healthy for everyone, but the content of porn skews expectations of how bodies appear and respond. Obviously, viewers understand that porn isn’t real and is meant for fantasy. The average age a boy in the U.S. looks at porn was recently age 11, but more findings have indicated that the average age is closer to 9. This means years of viewing porn reinforces ideas about sex before you have sex with an actual partner.
I have heard from many boys and young men that it is difficult to reconcile real-life sexual experiences with what has been getting them off. It is fairly common to hear that guys struggle to get off with a partner and rely on fantasies from porn to help them ejaculate. More and more guys report that they can only get off with porn. There is emotional safety in avoiding sex with a partner, and getting off with porn is easier than managing another person’s needs and potential rejection. Erectile Dysfunction is an increasing issue for college men. Many who stop looking at porn report their erectile function returns.
Girls and women are viewing more porn. Some are using it as masturbation fuel. Some girls tell me they get ideas for sex dares from porn. Some find it interesting to learn what their male friends or partners are spending so much time viewing. I hear from a lot of women that they try to like porn, but the objectification of and violence against women starts to grate on them. While there is feminist-made porn with healthier portrayals of women, those sites get less traffic and require more effort to find. A number of women claim they watch porn because guys want them to. Being a chill, uncomplicated girl or woman who doesn’t question objectification earns social credibility with some guys. Recent research indicates that many young women value pleasing their male partners and seeming hot more than they value understanding their own capacity for pleasure. Claims of sexual liberation and empowerment would be more compelling if more of these girls and women were authentically engaged in their own needs and pleasure, having orgasms and communicating their desires to their partners.
Males and females who watch a lot of porn report genital image issues. Most women in porn remove their pubic hair and surgically alter their vulvas. This trend originated when porn producers had to replace underage girls with adult women. Trimming the labia and removing pubic hair was intended to make the women look young. The average size penis in porn is around 8 inches. The average size of an average guy’s penis is 5.5 inches.
The privacy of Internet porn enables people to seek answers and avoid admitting to anyone what they don’t know about sex. The most frequently viewed porn, however, is misleading viewers about what converts to sexual encounters in real life. Porn is the first stop for sexuality education for most boys and a number of girls. It is rare to meet a college guy who doesn’t watch porn, or who hasn’t at least seen it. Occasionally, I hear about or meet the one guy from northern Maine or New Hampshire where dial-up limited his access to porn throughout his teens. The streaming issues made it annoying enough that they got really good at using their imaginations. Studies show that guys who stop looking at porn regain erectile function, a happier state of mind, productivity and a healthier highlight reel (fantasy reel).
One of the first college guys I interviewed said, “I am only masturbating to porn until I have a girlfriend or wife.” The poor dear thought he would have sex on tap (access to sex by virtue of sharing a bed with a woman) once he regularly shared a bed with a woman. I shattered his dreams when I informed him that sex on tap is a rare thing, especially if the couple has kids and a job or two. I also told him to keep up the masturbation skills as a gift to his future partners. I consider this a public service.
AC: What are some of the pros and cons to sexting?
CP: Pros with twist of con – Sexting enables people to: think before they express themselves or post a photo; carefully prepare what they say or post; keep some distance from emotional risk and pain; if someone responds in a hurtful or abusive manner, you can hide your reaction; yield nudes without having to ask directly; gain social credibility with peers who are the gatekeepers of acceptance; get more sex without having to put yourself out there to withstand rejection.
Cons – Sexting can give a person a false sense of comfort and confidence to rely on the opportunity to carefully compose a message or doctor up a photo; if it leads to sex, there is no app to rescue a person from the inevitable face-to-face awkward interaction; avoiding awkwardness leads to inevitable awkwardness (delays one’s learning); some people take offense; some people expect it even if you are not comfortable; if and when things don’t work out, your personal message may be shared publicly at your expense; nothing is ever really private.
AC: What can students do to avoid sexual assault on campus?
CP: Create a culture where intervention is the norm and people don’t tolerate and address micro-aggressions such as disrespectful language, objectification, and degradation as well as more blatant aggressions such a sexual harassment and hazing. Believing victims would lead to more reports from survivors who have feared reporting because so many cases have been mishandled. Schools that have the courage to risk tarnishing their image and losing support from alums will ultimately gain a better reputation as a fair and safe college.
Clear consequences for perpetrators carried about by law enforcement and/or the college would deter others and reduce incidents. There should be ongoing required programming for all men and women on campus such as Speak About It and programs from Prevention Intervention Resource Center (PIRC) . Common language and understanding of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and affirmative consent increases the chance for productive conversations about and engagement in solutions.
If we look at what students can do to avoid being sexually assaulted, the solution would also involve students taking an active role in improving the culture of their campuses by engaging men and women in educational programming and in ongoing conversations about improving their campus climate. The idea of using coercion, physical restraint or alcohol to subdue a person should be considered deplorable enough that people will step in and stop a friend or stranger from committing or becoming a victim of sexual assault.
70% of sexual assaults on campuses involve alcohol. 6-14% of men are repeat offenders, responsible for 90% of campus assaults. 68% of assaults are not reported, mostly because the survivor doesn’t think s/he will be believed. Sexual assaults are almost all committed by boys and men. False reports are rarer than people think (2-10%, equal to almost all other crimes). Information is power. Students don’t absorb it in one presentation. It is much more powerful if it reaches them in a variety of ways over time with plenty of overlap for the important details.
AC: How would you advise a student to tell his or her date that they have herpes?
CP: If you are on a date or just hooking up, STIs need to be addressed directly if you are going to be intimate. Many people carry and can pass long the herpes virus, even if they have never had an outbreak. Telling someone you have herpes is awkward and worth diving into. Since you can pass along the virus even if you aren’t having an outbreak, it is important to make your partner aware that you carry the virus whether your lesions are active or not.
Most people fear that they will be considered a gross, sleazy person if they admit they have herpes. It seems much more gross and sleazy to not tell a person and put them at risk of contracting it. Your honesty could ultimately be a trait that your partner finds refreshing and admirable. With that knowledge, you could decide together if you want to use a condom or a dental dam or refrain from sexual contact altogether. That is what an informed sexual decision looks like.
AC: How would you advise students to communicate sexual consent & what do you think about putting consent in writing?
CP: With more conversations and education around “yes means yes” (affirmative consent), it is becoming an expectation and a norm for college students to get and give clear, verbal consent. Many older people (including parents of college students) struggle to accept this and complain that it is not realistic to “go through a checklist.” Rather than a checklist, getting affirmative consent is about checking in as you go along with simple questions that are quite reasonable: Does this feel good? Are you comfortable with this? Does this feel ok? Laci Green has a great short video to help everyone:
I would like to hear more about college students aiming for healthy, consensual, communicative and pleasurable sexual encounters, rather than signing a consent form on an app to avoid being accused of sexual assault. Consent apps emphasize the idea of getting clearance and don’t encourage the idea that the right thing to do is to verbally ask for or give consent. It is worrisome that some of the potential users seem to be focused on avoiding consequences in case they make a sketchy choice or reach a point of intoxication that their judgment may be off, a recipe for nonconsensual sex.
Healthy sexual relationships involve two people of similar age consensually exploring each other’s bodies for pleasure. BOTH partners should be experiencing pleasure, which requires communication. Sloppy, drunk sex is common because the unspoken social contract of hookup culture is about depending on alcohol to make sex less awkward.
Navigating one consent app has proven to be so full of snags that couples are forced to stop and communicate to figure it out together before starting again. I heard a great story about a couple having so much trouble with the app that they had to turn on the lights, the guy had to reach for his glasses because he had already taken out his contacts, and they hunched over the phone together to work through the complicated app. By the time they had given consent on the app, they decided to just snuggle and go to sleep and have sex another time. I have also heard stories about couples whose arousal and interest in sex had been completely depleted during the process of figuring out the app. Upon realizing they were comfortable enough to rally up for sex after all that, it was evident that they didn’t need an app to ask for and give clear consent. In these two cases, a consent app is doing a nice job of slowing down the decision-making process.
AC: What is appropriate terminology to use for all things LGBTQ
CP: I included an extensive Glossary of Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Terms in the resource section of my book. It is adapted from the glossary put together by the NYC Administration for Children’s Services in Safe & Respected and includes over thirty terms and definitions. There are many glossaries available through reliable resources online.
There is considerable misunderstanding about what terms are acceptable when discussing any aspect of the LGBTQ community. Some college students will avoid engaging in conversations, fearing they may offend or reveal their lack of awareness. First and foremost, it is important for students to understand the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. Gender identity encompasses a person’s roles, expressions and internal identities. Sexual orientation describes a person’s attraction or sexual relationship (or lack thereof) with others. Gay, lesbian and bisexual students are still marginalized on college campuses to varying degrees, but acceptance has become an expectation on many college campuses. While acceptance of TGNC (transgender/gender nonconforming community) individuals is improving, it is clear that more educational programming is needed for the general population of students to get up to speed.
Many incoming college students have not had personal relationships with members of the TGNC community or have been taught respectful terms. Since terminology has been evolving in recent years, even open-minded parents and professors tend to use terms that are outdated such as cross-dresser (gender expression – a person who wears clothes of another gender). It is also common for people to use offensive terms such as sexual preference (rather than the correct term, sexual orientation) and hermaphrodite (intersex is the correct term for a person whose combination of chromosomes, gonads and hormones present in a way that is not strictly males or female). Being informed enables people to participate in conversations to further their understanding and avoid making assumptions and being offensive. Awareness of respectful language is a great first step toward acceptance and understanding.
About Cindy Pierce
Cindy Pierce is a sex educator and comic storyteller who is on a mission to give students perspective and information so that they can better navigate cultural, media, and peer pressures, particularly around their social lives and sexual relationships. By weaving together expert opinions, personal anecdotes, and the real feedback of today’s college and high school students, Pierce helps make those ‘difficult’ conversations a little less difficult for everyone.
For more than a decade, Pierce has spoken at schools across the country about the importance of consent and communication in sexual relationships. She is the author of Sexploitation: Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World and co-author of Finding the Doorbell: Sexual Satisfaction for the Long Haul, in addition to her new book for college students. Pierce has been interviewed on NPR’s Here & Now, was honored as one of 14 Remarkable Women of the Arts in New Hampshire magazine, and is an in-demand speaker at college and high schools nationwide, where she consistently receives glowing praise from students and administrators nationwide for her honest and humorous approach to sex education.