For college students, the first few months at school tend to be the most dangerous time for sexual assault — students are anxious, they may be drinking more and many may be struggling to navigate the sexualized "hookup culture" that can be found on many campuses.
It’s something author and sex educator Cindy Pierce says parents and students need to talk more about.
Pierce laughingly admits she never set out to be an expert on sex.
"I was late to the game in sex, that’s what’s so funny," says Pierce. “I was the last person to have it, and the fact that I’ve written three books about it is absolutely hilarious to anyone who grew up with me.”
Pierce, who lives in Etna, New Hampshire, taught elementary and middle school in Vermont for seven years. She also taught high school students at two ski academies and earned a master’s degree in education.
But she says it’s her experience as a comic story teller that’s enabled her to get up in front of students and ask them questions about how much porn they watch, how they talk with their partners about sexually transmitted infections, how much they masturbate and what they know about female orgasms.
“Being a comic storyteller makes it so much easier to address these topics and makes it more palatable for kids, especially coming from someone who looks like their mom,” says Pierce, pointing to her no-nonsense gray hair.
“So they’re a little confused like, ‘Who’s this lady? She’s, like, kind of like my mom, but she’s talking about all sorts of things very graphically and very honestly,’" Pierce says. "So comic storytelling, it just eases the awkwardness, for sure.”
Pierce says she began working with college students 14 years ago, after her niece asked her to come talk to her sorority at Dartmouth.
“And here were these powerful, great, smart, tuned-in women, and I kind of told a few stories. I expected they understood — you know, they had the internet,” says Pierce, shaking her head. “I thought, 'These kids are all set,' ... and I was alarmed by the lack of knowledge that was in that group.
"And they were very honest 'cause it was an all women's group, and they just said, ‘Look we’ve got some questions.’ And the questions blew my mind, and I thought, 'Hmmmm.”
Not long after, Pierce spoke at her nephew’s fraternity. The questions, she says, went on for two hours.
“And the questions is where I learn the most about what’s going on with students,” she explains. “So that led to going to more colleges.”
And that eventually pushed her to write Sex, College and Social Media: A Commonsense Guide to Navigating the Hookup Culture.
Pierce says what’s amazed her is how grateful students tell her they are to talk about this stuff. Because, she says, many admit to feeling lost and confused when it comes to “hooking up” — a term that Pierce says can mean pretty much anything.
“There is this weird juxtaposition of ‘We want to keep it casual, and it's no big deal,' yet they crave the intimacy, and that’s the frustrating part,” Pierce says.
"If I heard from college students that they were emotionally and sexually fulfilled in the hookup culture, I wouldn’t be doing this work," Pierce says. "I wouldn’t be standing up in front of college kids asking such personal questions.”
Pierce says parents want their children to form healthy relationships and have fulfilling sex lives — "We do," she says — but she admits talking about how to get there is awkward, so many parents avoid the conversation and assume their kids will figure it out.
Unfortunately, says Pierce, many kids are relying on porn to do that.
“During my talks, one of the most common things guys talk to me about is how they feel confused about the reality of their heterosexual experiences and what they see in porn," Pierce says. "And they can’t reconcile those things.”
She says porn causes a lot of problems because it skews expectations about how sex and relationships should be and how bodies should look. Pierce says porn also objectifies women, includes a lot of violence and glorifies rape.
So Pierce says it’s important to talk about it with your kids so they can understand how it’s misleading — and do it soon, she says.
“The average age a boy in the U.S. is seeing porn for the first time is at 9 years old," Pierce explains.
She says it typically starts with a child typing in a word they’re curious about into the computer and that search leads very quickly to sights parents might not like their child seeing. Parents panic when they see the search history, she says.
“But it’s natural for kids to be curious,” Pierce says, “so use it as teachable moment and start the conversation about why porn is unrealistic. Then explain, at their level, what makes for a healthy relationship.”
Besides encouraging college students to think twice about porn, Pierce says the biggest lesson she tries to get across is the need to slow down, choose partners carefully and communicate.
She says not all college students are having sex; many are abstaining. But if two people are going to hook up, Pierce says they need to be able to talk to each other about contraception, condoms, consent and pleasure: “I always tell kids, 'If you can’t talk about these four things with your partner, then get your pants back on!'"
And it doesn’t have to be complicated.
“What it needs to be is: ‘Is that okay?’ ‘Are you comfortable with this?’ ‘Does that feel good?’ ‘Is this working for you?’ It’s asking questions,” stresses Pierce, “so you’re checking in with the person you’re with.”
And if it doesn’t, or you don’t want to do something, Pierce says to speak up.
“It doesn’t mean you’re not a nice person,” she says.
Correction 11:26 a.m. 09/08/2017 This script incorrectly stated that Cindy Pierce had taught elementary and middle school in Vermont for more than a decade. In fact, it was seven years.