Once upon a time, discussions about sex for college students could be boiled down to one word: “Don’t.” A lot of people assume that the atmosphere on campus has shifted so drastically that today’s take on sex is more accurately summed up as “Why not?”
But there are better questions to ask. Like many students, you may be annoyed by moralizing about sex, but these ethical questions can actually help you clarify the role you want sex to play in your own life:
1. What do I want sex to mean?
There are two ends of the spectrum on this question: one – sex is purely about physical pleasure and two – sex is an expression of the deepest commitment two people can make to each other. Even if you don’t have a moral or religious problem with number one, you have to acknowledge that it doesn’t offer the richness that number two can provide. Is there a chance you might find sex more fulfilling when those fuller layers of meaning can come into play? What kind of a relationship will support the deep intimacy of sex?
Also, sex can mean making babies. It’s worth keeping that in mind, and not just because you might have to deal with a pregnancy you’re not ready for. Sex can be about creating life. That’s a powerful gift and one that deserves something more than mindlessness.
2. Do my partner and I both understand sex the same way?
In many respects, the ethics of a sexual relationship are similar to the ethics of any other friendship. Partners should be honest, fair and caring, and they need to express those qualities in coming to a mutual understanding about sex. However you view sex, it’s wrong to hop in bed with someone who understands the act in a very different way. If it’s only physical pleasure for you, don’t hook up with someone who thinks of sex as an expression of commitment and love.
3. Does the sex show respect for me and my partner?
Few things can make you feel grosser than having sex when it’s not really what you want to do. This is not about rape. You can consent to sleeping with someone who’s not good for you. Maybe you’ve landed in bed with a person you really care about who doesn’t reciprocate your feelings. Maybe you’re settling for meaningless sex when you want something more. However you decide to have sex, you and your partner should both feel recognized as people in the encounter, not used as instruments for someone else’s pleasure.
4. Am I choosing to have sex or am I letting alcohol make the decision for me?
You can see this pattern any Friday night. People dress for a party with every intention of having fun and then coming home. Or, they hope to find someone special and start a real relationship. But after a few too many beers, they can’t remember why going home with someone who treats them poorly is a bad idea.
If your potential partner is in any way incapacitated by alcohol, you should definitely not take advantage — that is not consensual sex. But, assuming you’re both still able to establish clearly that you want to hook up, drinking doesn’t cancel out your responsibility for your decision. In fact, drinking is a decision, and “I was wasted ” is not an excuse for doing something that your better self would not do.
Sometimes students are so worried about being judgmental—or being judged—that they give up exactly those modes of ethical thinking that could help them live the way they want to live. Posing a few ethical questions might help make your next relationship the one you’ve been hoping for.
Miriam Schulman is the communications director for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, which sponsors The Big Q, an online dialog for college students on the ethical issues in their everyday lives. This article appeared originally in USA Today College, December 19, 2011.