College is widely understood to broaden one’s sexual horizons. For many students at elite universities, high school was a whirlwind of books and extracurricular activities — not a time for the languid afternoons and audacity conducive to sex. At college, it won’t necessarily be dispensed to all, but a comfortable majority will enjoy the spoils at last.
Some college students do end up having lots of sex: at parties, in libraries, on Sundays when others are finishing their essays. But a significant number don’t. Either they have no sex at all or they have some, though not nearly as much as they’d like. The former category often includes people who purposefully forgo sex for personal, cultural or religious reasons; fair enough. But what about those who get to college happily anticipating some sort of four-year orgy, and end up realizing halfway through that their experiences haven’t lived up to the hype?
I did my undergraduate work at Cambridge in the UK, where sex was in the air but seldom between the sheets. You were constantly aware that people were having sex, and regularly, but it just didn’t seem to happen to many people you knew. A few people did the heavy lifting for the rest, having sex three or four times a week and tossing bawdy anecdotes to their sex-starved friends. Everyone would pretend to find these stories unappetizing, but in reality we would delightedly return to them for weeks.
It wasn’t that my Cambridge friends and I didn’t want to have sex; we all did, male or female. It was more that we were cowed at every juncture by feelings of paralyzing awkwardness. How to get from hanging out with a boy or girl in a classroom, to actually having sex with them? How to stop talking to one’s partner at the end of a date, in order to lean in and kiss his or her previously articulate mouth? How to phase banter out of interactions, to make room for sexual tension? The transition from verbal communication to physical intimacy was — is — a minefield. The luckiest of my peers proved adept at bridging the divide, or were such smooth operators that they saw no divide at all. Yet many preferred to give up the pursuit of sex entirely, in order to live the quiet life, unperturbed by rejection and end-of-date key-fiddling. It was easier not to go chasing after sex; for all but the fortunate, the pursuit augured humiliation and uncertainty.
At the heart of the issue, I think, is the hallowed “otherness” of sex. The more it is held up as the great activity we should all be doing, as red-blooded students, the harder it is to actually undertake. They say sex is casual nowadays, and while it is for some, it absolutely is not for most. Asking for it is difficult; dealing with the consequences of it is difficult; knowing whether it was good or bad, once finally done, is also difficult. With sex in the picture, feelings can get hurt, insecurities magnified, friendships tested.
But that isn’t always how it works. Sex can also be a life-affirming and liberating force; it can buoy confidence, not knock it down. Good sex benefits both the mind and the body; it is an efficient way to increase concentration and emotional wellbeing. And I suspect that life would be simpler if we stripped sex of its taboo status — if you could just suggest sex to another person, as nonchalantly as you would ask to borrow their pen: “Hey — do you want to sleep together? If not — cool.”
OK, so maybe it will never be that simple. There are some very good reasons why the social taboo around sex has developed. When we have sex, we expose a side of ourselves that is not brought to the fore when we dance or eat or express our literary preferences. Sex is often at its best when conducted in a familiar environment, with someone you trust and know well. And if the road leading to physical intimacy was entirely smooth, sex might lose its allure, becoming just another humdrum time-passer.
But if social norms loosened up a bit and allowed us to talk about sex more freely, much suffering would be prevented. Think of the time that would be saved — instead of trying to decode text messages and sidelong glances, you would be able to find out swiftly whether physical intimacy with the desired other was a feasible option. We are all aware of what people we find attractive. It seems ludicrous that so much effort has to be funneled into establishing whether they also have feelings of physical attraction for us. So let’s stop being so coy, and start asking — plainly, politely — for sex.