• Sun. Sep 24th, 2023

The politics of sex and dating at an international university

BySophie Smedegaard

Apr 15, 2020

From an early age, it is engrained in us that to be successful in life we need a university degree. But the unspoken yet established part of attending university is to ‘experience things’. This ambiguous phrase is repeated to us from an early age and it is not as abstract as it might sound.

We are bombarded with this message in contemporary pop culture which not-so-subtly reveals that university is for sex; this is the ‘thing’ we should be pursuing. Starting university with a high-school-sweetheart-boyfriend of three years, I was repeatedly told that I could not ‘experience things’, by continuing this relationship. Said boyfriend even used this phrase to justify ending our relationship over Skype on my first day of freshers’ week.

We are repeatedly told by ‘adults’ and friends alike, that we have our entire lives to be committed to one person, so now is the time to be selfish and to follow our every whim. University students are given a moral carte blanche to experiment with sex, drugs and interests in a way we have never been permitted to do so before.

However, with this immense freedom comes pressure and frustration, because how are we supposed to know how to act in a sphere we have never been exposed to, except for in cheesy rom-com movies? And to make matters more mystifying, 40% of The University of Edinburgh’s student body is from outside the UK, so everyone has different backgrounds and cultural dogmas, making it nearly impossible to navigate these unchartered waters.

The pressure most university students feel, stems from our own expectations of what we should be doing and where we might be heading. We have attained our goal of getting into a top tier university and we are now shifting our focus to which career path we should to pursue. For some, this also means the hunt for a lifelong partner has begun, while for others, dating provides a breathing space where casual fun can be pursued. As opposed to high school where everyone is under a social microscope and are constantly judged for every action, the sheer size of university provides an entirely different experience.

Sex and dating, in theory, can now be whatever you want it to be, but what happens when the two people involved have different backgrounds or expectations for relationships?

I was raised in a liberal Danish society, where sex is openly discussed and being confident in one’s sexuality, is praised. My positive approach to sex could have been very different if my family had remained in the American South, where my friends tell me their sexual education after I left, was essentially “just don’t do it” and “here is a list of the diseases that you will get, if you do”.

These cultural ideologies are more than theoretical, they create increasingly challenging situations. An example of this is a male friend of mine who revealed that he finds a certain physical act belittling to women because in movies, they only occur to portray the dominance of a man over a woman. Sex has become intertwined with politics and has been used by men for centuries to assert their power over women, one merely has to look at the #MeToo movement to see just how widespread a phenomenon this is. This fear of sex instilled in children combined with the negative ‘use’ of sex in the media, has perpetuated the ideology that sex is taboo and women especially, should not be comfortable with their sexuality.

Our upbringings, the norms of our societies and our personal experiences all help shape our ‘sexual paradigms’,which are then brought together in the vast melting pot that university is.

An area of divergence in the university-dating sphere, is how people define an intimate relationship. Ultimately, intimacy boils down to vulnerability, where our diverse university has revealed people’s definition of ‘vulnerability’ is extremely varied.

I was raised in a community where sex is both for people in love but, for young people, is just another way of having fun. Therefore, I clashed with certain people at university, who assumed that our relationship meant more because we had a physical relationship and vice versa, I assumed certain relationships were more serious because we were emotionally open with each other and did stuff outside of our flats.

Our ideas of what being vulnerable is, differs so immensely that it can be daunting to participate in this odd rite of passage, where you expose previously hidden physical and emotional features of yourself. There is an element of trust involved, which can be intimidating, if you aren’t completely sure of yourself and if you define vulnerability differently to your partner.

My friends at university have a range of views on what sex means to them, defining it as anything from an interaction that brings two people together on an emotional level, to a purely physical act that takes place for fun. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, most people state sex only means something if your partner means something to you.

There is an array of reasons for seeking physical relationships, many which are instigated with the aid of some liquid courage at one of Edinburgh’s many nightclubs, but one reason that was continuously brought up, is the issue of loneliness. According to a study done by Sodexo, 46% of UK university students feel lonely during their time at university, where one solution is to spend the night with someone.

Issues can arise when the two people involved have different expectations for what this event means for their future; if it is simply a one-night-stand or the beginning of a relationship.

The wide range of expectations for what a romantic and sexual relationship can give, is full of ‘lessons’, a fundamental one, aside from open communication, is not to blindly believe stereotypes. There is an underlying belief that all women want to be in a romantic relationship. This obviously is not true, yet it is shocking how absurd it is to some people that a committed relationship, isn’t a number one priority; I have been called a ‘selfish bitch’ as a result of explaining this to someone I was seeing.

The toxic masculinity that prevails in our society makes it hard for men to express their emotions to each other, which results in women often feeling the burden of having to be a full support-system for their partners, from an early stage. I had to opt-out of a potential relationship because years’ worth of issues were unloaded onto me by the third date and by the fifth, he was convinced he loved me, although I had repeatedly told him I did not want anything serious.

Our personal desires are overridden because of an outdated gender role that assumes women are ‘seeking love’ and their main goal in life is to nurture others. It is acceptable and even expected that men in university do not want a serious relationship, yet women aren’t given the same liberty and instead have to gently explain why a relationship is not for them, without bruising the male ego too much.

Historically, men have been the active initiators and women, the passive reactors, yet with the growing heterogeneity of the dating scene, gender roles are changing and so must the expectations of what is the accepted protocol of the sphere.

Image Credit: OpenClipart-Vectors via NeedPix.com