This year’s National Sexual Assault Conference theme is audacious and inspiring: “Bold Moves–Ending Sexual Violence in One Generation.” It calls out the damaging misperception that sexual assault and gender-based violence is inevitable. And, it summons us to think and act more creatively and courageously than ever before.
Here at EVERFI, our bold move is to dismantle the myth that Gen Zers are interested in hook-up culture and support young adults in their desire to form meaningful, respectful intimate relationships with each other. And, thankfully, we’re not alone in asserting this challenge: a significant body of research has emerged over the past decade that indicates the majority of young adults do not engage in or (perhaps more importantly) even desire no-strings, no expectations sexual encounters. Nevertheless, too often when parents, educators, and caring adults talk with young people about intimacy and sex, the conversation focuses on what Harvard education researcher Richard Weissbourd calls “disaster mitigation”–a hand-wringing monologue about their likely sexual explorations threaded with vague references to avoiding unplanned pregnancy, asking for, and receiving consent, and respecting themselves and their partners.
I’ll confess, I’ve done this. Even recently. And it’s all important stuff, for sure, but these talks don’t do enough to offer what young adults hunger to understand better about relationships. As Weissbourd notes in a recent study on the subject, “we do remarkably little to prepare [young people] specifically for the focused, tender, subtle, generous work of learning how to love and be loved.” And we’re pretty lousy at teaching young people the skills they need to engage in meaningful, emotionally responsible and respectful relationships with each other.
But this is what college students tell us they want. As the nation’s largest provider of online sexual violence prevention education for college students, we have significant insight on young adults’ beliefs, perceptions, and experiences when it comes to relationships and sexual violence. In 2018, we included questions about this issue in our course surveys, and what we learned from nearly four thousand college students may be surprising.
What do college students say they want? Here’s the good news! 70% of respondents identified that they want love and respect in their relationships. And, contrary to the messages we often hear about college students and their fickle hearts (or libidos), 65% identified commitment, and an equal number noted faithfulness, as a quality they desire in relationships. Only 14% wanted to have casual sex (described in the survey as “friends with benefits”) and even fewer, 11%, were interested in hook ups, or as the survey describes it, “sexual encounters with no expectations attached”.
However, when asked what they believe their peers wanted from relationships, 53% said other students wanted “friends with benefits” and nearly half thought that other college students desired “sexual encounters with no expectations attached”. And, while college students desire love and respect for themselves, they believe that fewer than half of their peers want the same (48% and 47% respectively).
The distortion these data surface between what young people personally believe about relationships and sexual intimacy and what they perceive their peers to believe is quite troubling. As sexual violence prevention scholars have noted, young adults are more likely to shape their actions based on what they believe their peers think than what they personally feel.
To end sexual violence in one generation, we all must act. Here are some ideas to get started.
Colleges and universities can:
- Gather institution-specific data about student relationship choices and values to close the misperception gap when it comes to what students want out of relationships and sexual intimacy;
- Provide parents and other supportive adults with guidance on talking to young people about love and romantic relationships;
- Partner healthy sexuality education and sexual violence prevention efforts on campus by developing shared goals, language, and programming efforts that include content related to developing, sustaining, and ending emotionally significant relationships.
Parents and caring adults can:
- Engage in meaningful conversations about love, intimacy (and not just sex) what is important to you in your relationships, and what you value
- Model healthy and respectful words and actions for young adults in your own relationships
- Request that schools provide developmentally appropriate and ongoing skills-focused education about healthy relationships and healthy sexuality to their students
And here at EVERFI, we will invest our organizational creativity and courage in developing and delivering effective, positive education that helps our five million annual learners build healthy relationship skills and take action when someone is at risk of harm. We will continue to gather data about student beliefs and experiences, and deliver data- and research-driven insights to our 1,600 partner schools and to the broader community of prevention practitioners and higher education leaders.
The young adults in all our lives want and deserve respectful, loving, meaningful relationships. It is our work, together, to teach them how.