The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we can’t teach college students about sex and drinking

Protesters carry signs and chant slogans in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville last month. The protest was in response to the university’s reaction to an alleged sexual assault of a student revealed in a Rolling Stone article. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via Associated Press)
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Rolling Stone’s story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia may have come into substantial question in recent weeks. But the piece, along with others about rape on college campuses, has helped revive a conversation about what it’s useful to tell students about drinking. “It’s a surprisingly loaded subject, given the widely acknowledged prevalence of drinking on American campuses.” wrote Emily Yoffe in a recent piece on sexual assault on college campuses, in which she described how a speaking invitation was rescinded after she wrote a piece urging college students to quit binge drinking.

This debate follows the same way every time. Yoffe and others sensibly say that college students, particularly women, should take a cautious approach to drinking as a means of harm reduction. Feminists respond, also correctly, that asking women to change their behavior to guard against assault can only do so much. Both sides retreat to their respective corners.

But maybe we can reframe this conversation by acknowledging a difficult truth: College students are leaving home for a much-less restrictive environment right around the time that many of them have started having sex and drinking regularly. And while we can tell them what not to do, be it drinking heavily, leaving your drink alone at a party, or having intimate contact with someone who you think might be incapacitated, I wonder more and more if we’re hamstrung by the things we can’t teach teenagers about how to enjoy drinking safely and how to have good consensual sex.

According to data from the National Institutes of Health, by 2003, the average age at which Americans first drink alcohol had fallen to about 14. But sampling a sip of wine at dinner with parents or stealing a taste of a pilfered beer is not the same thing as truly beginning to drink. A 2012 study of 10,123 teenagers published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that regular alcohol use starts a bit later and has a slower growth curve: By 18, about half of teenagers are drinking alcohol regularly.

Sex comes later: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t track the age at which gay men and women start having sex, but teenagers have heterosexual sex for the first time at an average age of 17.1 years.

So how do we prepare young people for both of these things? Between 2006 and 2010, 82.5 percent of boys between ages 15 and 19 and 88.6 percent of girls of the same ages reported that they had “received formal instruction before the age of 18 on ‘how to say no to sex.’ ” Just 60.9 percent of those boys and 70.5 percent of girls got lessons in methods of birth control.

But while both of these things are important, saying no and using protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections aren’t all there is to know about sex. How to be clear that you mean no doesn’t necessarily teach you how to say yes — specifically, how to communicate what you want or what you’re comfortable with. Some of that knowledge probably has to come from experience. The reaction some California parents are having to a curriculum Planned Parenthood provides the Acalanes Union High School District suggests just how difficult it would be to implement a national program that gives teenagers guidelines for how to initiate and proceed through sex in a way that keeps all partners safe and happy.

Similarly, as Scientific American reported earlier this year, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program that was implemented in three-quarters of American schools between 1983 and 2009 is being revamped. As reporter Amy Nordrum explains: “D.A.R.E.’s original curriculum was not shaped by prevention specialists but by police officers and teachers in Los Angeles. They started D.A.R.E. in 1983 to curb the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among teens and to improve community–police relations.” Repeated studies found that the program didn’t actually work, and DARE America, which administers the program, is shifting to what Nordrum describes as “a hands-on program that would build communication and decision-making skills and let children rehearse these tactics via role play.”

This seems like an important and overdue change in tactics. But the American drinking age and drug prohibitions mean there are things that schools simply can’t teach and that parents have to take up on their own at home. All the role-playing in the world won’t teach you how a drink hits you, the difference between what it’s like to sip a glass of wine and the impact of gulping a glass of punch. And it certainly can’t convey the dehydrated misery of a hangover.

We may be getting better at telling teenagers what not to do, or at least at getting them to delay sex (if not drinking). But it’s one thing to hold off children’s arrival in the adult world, and quite another to have something useful to offer them once they get there.