Abstract: Let’s Talk About Sex: Exploring Sexual Communication and Use of Sexual Health Resources on a Catholic University Campus

◆ Katherine L. Grasso, DeSales University

Researchers have assessed how communication with friends, peers, and parents about sex impacts sexual behavior. However, while communication between sexual partners is related to safer sex, less attention has been paid to understanding the conversations that occur within sexually active dyads. Further, research about conversations regarding participants’ desires, needs, and boundaries is scarce. Safer sex can also be fostered by the use of resources, but certain environments (i.e., religious campuses) may not offer resources or be conducive to encouraging use of those resources. This study, which focuses on students on a religious campus, aims to 1) better understand the extent of communication between sexually intimate partners, and 2) measure individuals’ use of on and off-campus sexual health resources.

A sample of students (N = 666) from a small, Catholic, liberal arts college was surveyed online about their most recent sexual encounter and partner. Students described their relationship with that partner, as well as the specific behaviors and use of protection. Participants also answered questions regarding sexual communication with their partner, including their comfort discussing their sexual desires and needs, establishing sexual boundaries, discussing sexual exclusivity, and talking about STDS, birth control, and condoms. Students’ use of both on and off-campus resources for emotional or physical support related to their sexual behavior was also measured.

Overall, 78.5% of students reported ever engaging in any type of sexual contact, and 57.5% reported engaging in some form of penetrative sex. Among the sexually active participants who did not have penetrative sex, 40.7% were in casual partnerships and 59.3% were in committed partnerships. Among participants who had engaged in penetrative sex, 28.3% did so with casual partners and 71.7% did so with committed partners. Use of protection during penetrative sex was relatively common, especially during vaginal sex (59.3%) and anal sex (75%). However, it was much less common during oral sex, during which only 1.8% reported using protection.

Overall, rates of communication were high. As predicted, after controlling for the influence of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, and religiosity, rates of communication were higher among those in committed relationships than those in casual relationships. Additionally, when compared to those who did not engage in penetrative sex, those who engaged in penetrative sex communicated with their partner more.

Less than half of the students reported using any type of resource regarding their sexual health. A significantly larger proportion of respondents reported using off-campus resources (48.7%) than on-campus resources (12%). The most common off-campus resources were students’ family doctors and parents, while the most common on-campus resources were the health center and the counseling center.

It is reassuring that both those in committed relationships, as well as those engaging in riskier sexual behavior were more communicative with their partners. However, because casual sex is so common on college campuses, researchers should continue to explore how to foster meaningful conversations between sexual partners, promote self-advocacy regarding boundaries and desires, and increase the use of both on and off-campus resources.