Flirting and sex are alive but not well for college women

The game of love, including flirting and sex, has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but I saw a different version played out recently on spring break in Cabo, Mexico. My wife and I sat poolside and watched around 100 college seniors, men and women, as they flirted and frolicked for three days. Their energy was really fun to watch, but after some long talks with some of the women, I grew discouraged.

Helen Fisher, in her book, The Anatomy of Love, describes the stages of courtship that are common in all cultures, and I saw some of them played out in the pool. The first stage is the attention-getting stage. The guys preened, swaggered, laughed and joked loudly, standing tall and thrusting their chests out as if to say, “I’m here, I’m important, and I’m approachable.” Women at the pool, and worldwide, display a coy look, raise a shoulder and arch their back, toss their locks, and have a characteristic walk with breasts thrust out, hips swaying, and strutting to signal, “I’m here, notice me.”

The second phase begins when their eyes meet, and if a certain kind of smile is elicited, it signals a strong interest. Conversation then ensues, and research has shown that WHAT you say is less important than HOW you say it; you give away your intentions with your inflection and intonation. The woman usually initiates brief touching, and if he leans in, smiles, or returns the gesture, the dance continues. The last stage is body synchrony, where partners start to move in tandem, mirroring each other’s movements. At every juncture in this ritual, each partner must respond correctly or the courtship fails. It was fascinating to watch these young people play out their courtships.

The women we spoke to also shared their frustrations with their sex lives, and it was similar to what I’ve heard previously. The guys are interested in getting their needs met, and once that’s done, so are they. Girls are expected to give oral sex, but it’s rarely reciprocated. Guys basically want to get in and out and have no clue as to how to meet his romantic partner’s needs. Two of the women were upset because the guys in their group wouldn’t hang with them on the last night because they wouldn’t hook up with them.

I don’t blame either sex for any inadequacies when it comes to sexuality. When you really get down to it, all we teach young people about sex is: don’t so it; if you do it use protection; and God forbid don’t get an STD. We don’t teach them about how to grow your level of intimacy, about how to enjoy your body, and about the pleasurable parts of sexuality. So, we leave them at the mercy of YouTube videos and pornography and TV shows, and then wonder about why they seem to have a distorted view of sex.

College women have shared with me that they feel disconnected and lonely a lot, and that hooking up is a way to at least feel some kind of closeness. They know it’s not true intimacy, but it’s better than feeling alone. That  really saddens me.

We’ve made a lot of progress in the past 40 years with  women’s rights and empowerment and consent, yet when you put together a group of young adults at spring break, the long-standing courtship games between guys and gals still heats up. As my friend Dave says, this process is undefeated. I encourage every parent reading this to reevaluate your approach to sex education with both your daughters and sons to ensure that they develop a healthy sexuality.

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