Carnegie Mellon students open up about sex

“Sex kills. Come to Carnegie Mellon and live forever.” It’s sold on T-shirts and repeated — usually with a self-deprecating or sarcastic tone — around campus. But is this perception of abstinence actually true?

Greg, a junior double majoring in biomedical engineering and chemical engineering, thought so. “I feel like students care more about their schoolwork than having sex and having a good time,” he said. “It’s not the best perception that you could have about the school, but it’s not [the] worst.” Michelle, a sophomore science and humanities scholar, guessed that the level of sexual activity at Carnegie Mellon was “less than many other universities.”

Despite their estimates, the data suggests otherwise: According to a recent survey conducted by The Tartan, 61 percent of Carnegie Mellon students have engaged in sexual intercourse at some point in their life. These results are on par with the results of a survey conducted in 2009 by the American College Health Association, which showed that 61 percent of Carnegie Mellon students had oral, vaginal, or anal sex in the past year. That percentage is only slightly lower than the national average of 66.5 percent.

And yet, despite the data that proves otherwise, the myth persists. One explanation for this perception is that students think that they are too nerdy for sex. “There are significantly more nerds here at Carnegie Mellon, so that means more people not having sex,” one survey respondent said. Another survey respondent joked, “When do people have time to leave the clusters to have sex?”
Max, a sophomore majoring in international relations and politics, said, “We’re an engineering school who prides ourself on our geekiness, and I think that plays a role in people’s perception of us.” The level of sexual activity is thought to vary by college, though — “I feel like CIT, SCS aren’t like, that involved in that,” Michaela, a first-year chemistry major, said. “As compared to like H&SS and like, drama people.”

Students also seem to equate partying with sexual activity. Alex, a senior electrical and computer engineering major, said, “Usually you tend to associate, like, [a] very sexually active campus with a party school. Clearly Carnegie Mellon does not have that reputation.”

This association between partying and sex has led students to believe those in Greek organizations are having more sex. “Fraternity guys and sorority girls ... give off the image that they party together,” Greg said, “so they give off the perception that they have sex with each other.” According to The Tartan’s survey, members of Greek organizations are, in fact, more likely to have intercourse, although not by much — 68 percent of Greek students surveyed have had intercourse, and Greek students are 10 percent more likely to have had more than two sexual partners since entering college.

One large reason why people seem to underestimate other students’ sexual activity, though, is because students simply do not talk about it. Rene, a first-year majoring in environmental policy, said, “It’s one of those topics that people generally avoid — if it’s not, like, your best friend, then you wouldn’t ask, and you wouldn’t know.”

One survey respondent argued, “Because of the more academic focus of the students (in comparison to other campuses in Pittsburgh, where one of the ‘goals’ is to find a partner), it is not as openly discussed outside of sex jokes or out of pride, depending on the person. We do poke fun at our lack of ability to get laid a good deal on this campus (for example, the SEX KILLS shirts), but is that just a way hiding a more personal and less ‘important’ sexuality? I think so, at least.”

Kelley Shell, the health promotion specialist for Health Services, suggested that culture, not academics, was the reason for the lack of discussion about sex. “I definitely think that a lot of students in general here aren’t as outward or as forthcoming with talking about sexual health, and there are certainly cultural influences over how comfortable people feel about asking questions or approaching a table where there’s sexual health information, so I think that has a lot of influence,” she said.

However, that doesn’t mean that students aren’t interested in information about sexual health. Four of the top 10 reasons that people use Health Services are related to sexual health, she said, which shows that people are interested in getting information about sex, regardless of how willing they are to talk about it. Health Services also has multiple programs to promote student health, including Free Condom Fridays and educational health programs that the Carnegie Mellon Peer Health Advocates teach.

“In our experience, when we go out to do programs — and I’m speaking for the Peer Health Advocates, but also for myself — even when students are quiet and not necessarily comfortable asking questions, we found them to be really receptive to the programs that we offer,” Shell said. “Maybe it takes them a little while to get comfortable. I think some people have expressed to us during programs that they haven’t had that kind of experience before where someone would just come and talk to them about these kinds of things [outside of a health class].”

This lack of communication about sexual activity isn’t restricted to talk on campus; it is even present during sex. In Body Politics: Women and Health in America, a class taught by associate professor of history Lisa Tetrault, sophomore directing major Priscila Garcia suggested a poll of how people define themselves as good lovers. Their poll results showed that students were often non-communicative about sexual activities within their sexual relationships.

“A lot of it is about how I can give myself to my partner, or how I can do things for him, but it’s not necessarily about communication, do you know what I mean? It’s about, ‘If I can pleasure him, that’s great,’ ” Garcia said. “Sometimes communication gets involved, and it’s like, ‘We talk about it and it’s a communicative thing,’ but most times, it’s ‘I’ll just do this to this person because I know it’ll pleasure them,’ but there’s no sense of [actually discussing it].”

But is not talking about sex really a bad thing? Rene thought so. “I do think sex should be more open,” he said. “You know, I like it when they give out condoms, and people are just comfortable with the idea. It shouldn’t be something that people are afraid, like ‘Oh my god, I had sex, I’m going to go to Hell.’ It should just be something that we’re comfortable with.” A male sophomore in the School of Music thought that students should be far more comfortable about sex, saying, “In the end, we are just college students.”

This pervasive reluctance to be open about sexual activity affects how open students are about other aspects of their sexuality, he argued. “Even when somebody is gay, there are a whole lot of people who aren’t out, and just don’t put themselves on the market because they aren’t comfortable themselves,” he said. “And that’s a travesty I see all the time. Not just for that reason, but just on the whole. If you’re in college and you’re not out, I think it’s a shame. There are a number of things that you can do when you’re out, and that’s not limited to sex — that’s a whole spectrum of things.”

A survey respondent agreed with this lack of sexual openness, saying, “Carnegie Mellon students are not very sexual. It’s not even about how often/how frequently you engage in sexual activities — it’s more important to be comfortable with yourself and your sexuality. I think most Carnegie Mellon students don’t even know what sexuality actually means.”

Perhaps this isn’t a bad thing. One survey respondent wrote, “While the amount of sexual activity may not be as much, or rather, not stressed as much as it is at other universities ... it just doesn’t own our lives, which I think is very important."