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Sex Secrets of Millennials

What your grandkids won't ask you (but I sure wish they would!)

spinner image Sex Secrets of Millennials
Dr. Pepper Schwartz on young adults and the questions they have about sex.

Is the college student in your family a know-it-all on the love-and-sex front? If so, I'm here to tell you it's all just an act. As a university professor of sociology, I know precisely how much younger generations don't know, because they often ask me the questions they won't ask you. It's been something of a reverse education for me to discover that today's kids are freighted by mounds of misinformation, self-doubt, bravado and (in some cases) heartbreaking dilemmas.

On the last day of the two classes I teach at the University of Washington in Seattle — one on intimate relationships and a second on human sexuality — I invite the students to submit "any question you ever wanted to ask." The process is anonymous, but I read each question aloud and answer it on the spot.

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Year after year, the queries below — some troubling, many touching, a few seemingly clueless — are the ones that most frequently get scribbled down and passed to the front of the class.

From male students

1. Questions about how to get their girlfriends to do all those sexy things they hear about

This usually means how to persuade their girlfriends to try oral sex, anal sex or partner configurations such as a threesome. I have to say these questions worry me: For one thing, it means their partners are being pressured, and that's not right. I also worry that if the guys don't back off, they'll wind up in a sexual harassment suit — or possibly even facing charges of sexual assault.

So how do I handle these beyond-awkward "teachable moments"? I try to inform my students that a) not everyone is doing these things, and b) you had better respect your partner's right to say no. If she's the experimental type, fine — you're off to the races. If she's not, you can let the idea "marinate" for a while, hoping she'll get curious. (But if she doesn't, drop the matter for good.)

2. Questions about technique

Many male students wonder if they are "doing it right": How do I give her an orgasm? How do I last long enough? Is my penis size normal? Do I need six-pack abs to go to bed with a woman? Am I too heavy? Too skinny?

It's intriguing that many of these are the same sort of body issues that bedevil women. I try to allay the questioners' concerns by reassuring them that pleasing a partner isn't all that difficult — there are many ways to do so — and that they will be loved for the "whole package" of who they are, rather than an isolated attribute such as a large penis or a small butt. Finally, I cite some comfortingly high statistics on the high percentage of couples who say they are physically and emotionally satisfied with their partner. The session's intended takeaway is simply this: The standards we ask of ourselves are much higher than those imposed by the person who loves us.

3. Questions about sexual orientation

With all our recent advances in gay rights, no millennial should be quaking in the closet in 2014. But some are. Particularly heartbreaking to me are those cases where young people fear revealing their sexual identity because their conservative family would disown or even endanger them. More than one gay or lesbian student, for example, has admitted having a father so homophobic they feared getting banished from the state, beaten up or even killed. I direct these students to the "It Gets Better" campaign that Dan Savage wisely started, and console them — or try to — when parents or friends reject them.

4. Questions about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

Many questions are so misinformed it never occurred to me to address them. For example, one boy in a coed dorm worried that if he masturbated in the shower, the next female to use the facility could get pregnant. Other students fear catching an STD, not realizing there's a good chance they already have HPV (human papilloma virus) or chlamydia, two infections rampant among sexually active people in their 20s. Only getting tested will answer that question, I tell them.

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From female students

1. Questions about being pressured

Many young women want to know how to stop their boyfriends from pressuring them into things they don't want to do (such as performing oral sex, swallowing semen or having a three-way). I tell them someone who truly loves them would never risk giving them an experience that imperiled their health or left them feeling guilty or regretful. (We study relationships a lot.)

2. Questions about how to know if they've had an orgasm

These break my heart because if they need to ask, they probably haven't had one. Many of these women are tormented by the notion that "I'm the only girl I know who hasn't had an orgasm." After I talk about why that's statistically dubious, we talk about what gives a woman an orgasm, and how it's a mental as well as a physical experience. It's a relief for them to learn that most young women do not have orgasms with just intercourse and no other touching. That often leads to a discussion of asking for what you want in bed — and giving feedback when you get it.

3. Questions about pregnancy

I've been asked whether it's possible to get pregnant from intercourse without ejaculation, or from anal intercourse where semen gets near the vagina. These clearly unprotected scenarios make it easy for me to drive home the urgency of practicing safe sex. I then refer students to three websites known for providing reliable information on this topic: Planned Parenthood, SIECUS (the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) and Go Ask Alice! (from Columbia University).

4. Questions about "boyfriend management"

I have to admit that some of these scare me; they point to abusive or pre-abusive relationships involving jealous, controlling or unhinged boyfriends. So we talk about why that isn't love; it's a boyfriend with a weak ego — and possibly some serious anger-management issues.

The questions above are just a sampling of the millennial mind-set, of course, but here's what I've concluded from 40 years of answering them in class:

  • There's more sex than intimacy going on.
  • Astonishingly for our age of "info glut," a sizable number of students lack solid information about the mechanics of sex and reproduction.
  • Many are struggling with issues of identity and sexual self-worth, and worries about dating and love.
  • About 20 percent are virgins (both men and women), and only a few of them feel good about that — or at least entitled to wait without being subjected to undue pressure or doubting their desirability.

These impressionable young souls come under my tutelage for only a short while, whereas they'll be a treasured part of your life — I hope — forever. So perhaps reading the exchanges above will get you thinking about ways to approach these issues with the young adults in your family, whether they act interested or not. (Hint: They're interested!) If you can hurdle the "discomfort barrier," your ability to listen and help find answers could be pivotal to a young person in need of guidance.

Dr. Pepper Schwartz answers your sex, relationships and dating questions in her blog.

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