Turning the silver doorknob, waiting to hear the click of the lock as she shut the door behind her, she exhaled. The metal clink promised the events that had taken place the night before stayed securely behind the wooden door but the heat in her chest was still there. Pacing down the poorly lit hallway, feet dragging against the dark carpeting whose designs were almost unrecognizable from years of piled on crud that buried itself within the strands, she grew more upset with every step towards the exit of the building.
“I don’t know if I wanted that situation to go down the way it did,” she thought to herself while the early morning, April breeze blew gently. She walked towards the opposite end of the campus where her dorm room offered a comfortable safe haven. She found herself, however, sitting with a close friend just beyond Victors’ Lament, hidden away on wooden benches that were concealed by the blossoming pink buds. The night before wasn’t a mistake but it wasn’t something that sat comfortably with her once she was removed from the situation. Enjoyable at the time, but heavy on her conscience the next day, she vented to her friend about waking up in someone else’s XL twin bed and how the guilt began to manifest. Once she released some tension that was gnawing at her, she walked the familiar asphalt path home but she couldn’t relieve herself entirely of that emotional weight.
“Those who aren’t sexually involved, that pressure they’re feeling is sort of a self-imposed pressure… and that creates a culture of higher expectations that aren’t really set in reality and it leads to a lot of this guilt about not being involved in sexual relationships and then also guilt when you are,” says Dr. Stefanie Sinno, a developmental psychology professor at Muhlenberg.
What a trapped space that young adults at college find themselves within – almost like we can’t win. If we act on our desires in the moment, we can find ourselves regretting it the morning after, and if we don’t, there’s the threat that we aren’t grabbing life by the horns and living out our best, young adult years. There seems to be no solution to this apparently inescapable feeling of guilt, a guilt that we can’t even put our fingers on or understand where it comes from. But there’s an actual explanation for this shame that so many of us get caught up in, and there’s a way to mitigate that feeling too.
The phenomenon of post (consensual) sex guilt isn’t a new one – researchers refer to it as “post-coital dysphoria” (PCD) or “post-coital blues,” and interestingly enough, studies show it affects both men and female alike. According to a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Sexual Health, 46 percent of the 231 women surveyed reported experiencing PCD. Another recent study published in June of this past year also shows a strong prevalence of post sex guilt, as about 40 percent of 1,208 male participants explained that they’ve also experienced PCD before. So, why are so many of us feeling this sensation? From a developmental psychology stance, there are multiple structures that are functioning at a deep unconscious level that promote, what Glamour.com refers to as the “post hookup hangover,” particularly in late adolescence. Personal identity, peer expectation and family values are notably amongst some of the elements that ultimately contribute to this hookup hangover when looking at college campuses .
“Teenagers are still in the identity formation time, and part of forming identity is part of your sexual identity and some people that claim sexual identity know how they identify much earlier in teenager years,” says Sinno. “However, there’s not much space to explore that in most high school community environments, college then becomes the time of actually exploring that identity – what does it actually mean.”
This idea of exploring one’s own identity becomes a bit more complex when considering that college environments don’t exist in a vacuum, nor do we. We’re constantly surrounded by our peers who seem to be participating in their own exploration of self, which prompts a pressure to participate in the hookup culture. Sometimes this desire directly opposes our personal or familial values. So how can we possibly merge together our own identity, our peer’s expectations of us and our family values harmoniously? The truth is, it’s not always a harmonious blend, but it also doesn’t have to be.
Sinno suggests that the most effective way of absolving the post sex guilt that comes from this disconnect between the self and the environment is self-awareness and confidence in your own personal desires and decisions. In being conscientious of the peer expectations and family values that might try to govern our actions behind closed doors, we can understand where our own personal values lie, which will ultimately allow us to be more confident in our sexual choices. Being confident in our sexual choices, however, has a lot do with our ability to communicate our wants and desires to our partner, which is a skill that unfortunately many late adolescents haven’t acquired. It isn’t necessarily our fault, though.
Typically, language regarding sex is introduced into our vocabulary at a point in our lives where we’re functioning on the basis that we’ve already had the ability to learn and apply the elements of these words into our interpersonal relationships. “Parents don’t want to talk to their kids about it unless they bring it up, and kids don’t want to talk to their parents about it, so it’s kind of a standoff,” says Sinno. This static relationship makes it difficult for parents to entertain conversations of sex with their children and when they do, it’s typically associated with the question of consent in a particularly heterosexual, penetrative way. “Adolescents somewhat feel prepared to say no in that moment but lots of sexual behavior is not that moment, so they don’t have language to negotiate how much of this touching do I want,” explains Sinno, “it makes so much sense then why we hit policies.” Looking to policies to mitigate the issues that can be caused by the lack of communication skills (in certain cases) has been addressed within the Muhlenberg community through recent policy changes.
A new Equal Opportunity and Nondiscrimination Policy (EO Policy) was approved by the Board of Trustees late this October. “Not only meets our legal obligations but also our values as a college,” explains Lin Chi-Wang, the college’s New Associate Dean of Student and Director of Equity and Title IX. The new EO Policy allows for the “same amount of attention and the same level of protection that we provide for sex discrimination” asserts Wang, as it encompasses a scope of other discriminatory practices regarding gender, race, religion, disabilities in addition to intimate partner violence, stalking, and retaliatory harassment.
“But if we can have conversations prior to something escalating to harassments, that’s the ideal,” says Wang.
These conversations aren’t limited to external ones, though. Internal, proactive, dialogue about our own wants and desires and how we’re positioned within structures of our family, peers and institutions, can ultimately help us gain a sense of self- assurance. In addition, this can also eliminate some ambiguity, discomfort and miscommunication that seem to be so intimately related to our teenage drives.
“The fact that anyone ever makes it out of adolescence is a miracle,” says Sinno. Considering the sorts of psychological hoops we have to jump through, that statement is hard to argue.