Well, I’m not sure if that number is exact, but based on a study by Donna Freitas published in a book entitled Sex & The Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance and Religion on America’s College Campuses (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008), we know that on a secular campus setting like Penn State approximately 81% of the student body is sexually active. That leaves approximately 19% who remain virgins.
Do the math.
Penn State’s University Park Campus has on average 44,000 students a year so that means about 8,360 of them are virgins.
You see, amidst the rumblings of the new student-written sex column Mounting Nittany in The Daily Collegian[i], a friend of mine told me that her son (a Penn State student) doesn’t believe that any of his fellow students are virgins. The new column doesn’t display a new attitude on campus. It’s just that now the anything-goes mentality is being flaunted nationally as news of the column goes viral. The current behavior shames us as a city. And it shames the educational institution itself. And I’m not talking about the behavior of the students.
The behavior that disappoints me is that of Penn State’s leadership and the leadership of our community. Together we could—if we cared—elicit change in the behavior of students that betters them emotionally and protects them physically. Evidence of this is when the State College Borough Council pressured student leaders to remove alcohol from the annual Phi Si 500, which had become a drunken brawl that was unsafe for the students and the community. When encouraged to a higher standard, the student organization turned the alcohol-abusing race into an alcohol-free event, which raised $7,000 for charity in 1992! After that, the race just kind of disappeared. But student goodwill did not. Consider Thon: the largest student run philantropy in the world. Last year the students raised $7.8 million dollars for pediatric cancer research.[ii] This is the glory of student goodness at its best and we as a community are proud of them. These students are good and capable of great things. They rise to the challenge of positive behavior behavior when it is expected of them!
But we rarely hear of high expectations for the students in State College, Pennsylvania. Instead, we most often turn a blind eye when students engage in promiscuity, considering it normal. Instead, we should—as we did when Phi Si 500 got out of control—be considering the health risks to the students themselves and the community at large.
According to Stanford University, the average sexually active male is going to have 9.7 sexual partners. For women: 7:1. Then, consider that the fastest spreading sexually transmitted infection in the world is HPV, for which there is no safe way of engaging in sex without risk of transmission. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention admits that a condom provides a “lesser degree”[iii] of protection than for other STIs, since the virus is not spread by bodily fluids. It’s spread by contact with the epithelial tissues which line the body cavities.
The new HPV vaccine may reduce some risk, but there are 100 types of HPV and the vaccine only addresses two of the four most lethal. By lethal, I mean HPV is the only known cause of cervical cancer[iv], the world’s second leading cause of cancer death in women. (Someone might want to tell Billy Joel’s daughter Alexa who recently announced her HPV status and claimed there are “no side effects.”) The vaccine only addresses two of the four strains of HPV associated with the HPV, so it’s really not addressing the problem adequately is it?
What good is it to prepare students for a successful career only for their livesto be cut short and ravaged by cancer? (Incidentally, HPV also can lead to infertility.)
Last year when I penned What Are You Waiting For: The One Thing No One Ever Tells You About Sex for college-aged women[v], I included this worthy question posed by a Penn State student. She was one of many that I interviewed at Penn State who felt they’d been duped by the over-sexed culture at the University:
Another student I spoke with had been temporarily caught up in the party and sex scene, but felt the shallowness of it. When she pulled out, she experienced … ridicule from her friends. This prompted her to ask me: “Why is there tolerance for everything but sobriety and abstinence here? Aren’t those healthy choices worthy of respect?”
With all due respect, some things are not worthy of tolerance. Boisterous, crass sexual columns that many alumni and current students are ashamed of are a mere symptom that university leadership, and perhaps our community as a whole, has been quite too tolerant of some things worthy of intolerance. In fact, there has been little effort to create positive peer pressure for behavior worthy not only of tolerance but praise!
I’m assuming that Graham Spanier is a good man with great concern for his students. You don’t lead one of the nation’s largest universities and get the nod of a presidential candidate as a potential cabinet member without some well-earned success and a whole lot of heart. However, in the department of cultivating a respectful social setting that encourages healthy behavior he has failed.
But in this case, we can and should give him another chance for a better grade. I’m sure if he could get a few emails with the personal stories his graduates who’ve suffered from cervical cancer after their regretful choices at Penn State, that he’d be heartbroken and wish he would have been more aggressive about educating students as to the risk. I’m certain that if he got a few letters that expressed the grief from those alumni who’ve suffered infertility because the female partner experienced pelvic inflammatory disease that he would himself wonder why he didn’t lead the charge in creating some tolerance for students who choose abstinence.
Maybe if he knew that smart people save sex, he could even lead the charge to make virginity cool at Penn State rather than something to be treated with stigma. I’m not making that up: smart people do save sex. The rate of sexual activity at Ivy League schools—like Harvard, Princeton and MIT—is considerably lower than other universities. (Since Penn State is considered the Ivy League of the public institutions, maybe it’s time we started behaving like one.) At Harvard, 41% of the students are virgins. Forty-four percent of students at Princeton are virgins. The smartest news came out of MIT where 49% are virgins.[vi]
So, to the 8,360 virgins at Penn State…
Some of us are proud of you.
Here’s hoping that encouragement and tolerance can one day be extended to you for your smart choice.
Addendum: I wrote this prior to the news of the Sandusky scandal breaking on November 5, 2011. In light of these allegations and the troubling turning of a blind eye by key leaders, including Graham Spanier, I not longer feel that Spanier deserves a second chance. I am praying for God to bring us an interim leader who has moral character at their core and will not fail to put the “right thing” above the “lucrative thing.”
Dannah Gresh is a resident of State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. She is an author and nationally recognized expert on sexuality who recently wrote a column entitled “There’s Nothing Brief About A Hookup” for CNN.com which garnered a hearty dialogue and over five thousands recommendations on social mediums. She’s also recently been a guest on FOXNews. Her most recent book, in which she did case studies on the Penn State University main campus, is What Are You Waiting For: The One Thing No One Ever Tells You About Sex.