THE DETAILS: It's a good idea to start the conversation with some supportive words, says Debby Herbenick, PhD, author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction and sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute. "Parents might want to say that they realize that many young people have sex during this time of their lives, and that they understand that their child may or may not, as well," she says, adding, "Parents can share their own values, but also let their college-age children know that they respect them and love them regardless of their choices, and that they are happy to provide information or help as needed."
She also suggests discussing the consequences of sexual behavior. Sex has obvious benefits; some are obvious (pleasure!), some are not (stronger immune-system health). But there are also risks, including sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy. Whatever your family's beliefs and preferences, it's important that sexually active young adults realize that striking a balance is key. "There's no doubt about it, having sex involves taking risks," Herbenick says. But that doesn't mean that the only risks are 'bad' ones. "When people take chances, it's often because there are good possible outcomes too, like feeling pleasurable or connected."
WHAT IT MEANS: Here are some ideas to help college students secure safer sex lives on campus:
• Practice with produce. Both guys and gals should know how to properly put on a condom. Herbenick suggests practicing on a cucumber if you're not sure. Also, sexually active students should be sure to have condoms on hand so there's no excuse for unprotected sex.
• Get checked. If you want to have sex with a partner, it's best to get an examination first. Women should get gynecologic exams if they are at least 18 years old, if they're sexually active (meaning having oral, vaginal, or anal sex), or if they're thinking about becoming sexually active. Herbenick says both men and women should get STD testing about every three months while they are sexually active, or two weeks after having sex with a new partner or as recommended by your healthcare provider. "If they are not ready to be parents, men and women should check into effective methods of birth control and use condoms to prevent pregnancy as well as infection," says Herbenick.
• Have a party plan. Before you go to a party, make sure you have the number for a campus or community service that offers free rides home. This can prevent drinking and driving, and also walking home alone in unsafe situations. And make arrangements before going to the party about who it is you'll return with. "Go to parties with friends, and make sure that your friends don't go home with anyone they weren't already planning to be with," explains Herbenick. "In other words, no surprise or drunken hookups. If you meet someone you like, you can always see them another day."
• Guard your cup. Unfortunately, acquaintance rape and drunken sex (which can be considered assault by campus and local policy) are a reality. College students at a party should be sure to never leave a drink unattended because someone could slip in recreational drugs.
• Consider flying solo. "Sex can feel pleasurable, connecting, and meaningful; however, it doesn't always feel that way, so college students (like adults of any age) will want to make thoughtful, careful choices about their sexual lives," says Herbenick. "Masturbation can help college students to relieve stress, to fall asleep, or to feel sexually satisfied whether or not they have a partner." It can lessen the pressure to hook up with a stranger at a party. And it can help women and men feel more comfortable with their bodies, and teach them more about what does and doesn't feel good sexually. "Then, when they do enter into a sexual relationship one day, they will be better equipped to share with a partner what they enjoy about sexual touching," she says. Important rule: Save it for when there's no roommate around, or when you have enough privacy to do it with without bothering anyone else.