Hello Yana!

I’m looking for advice on navigating college relationships. I’m a young lesbian and I’m trying to consolidate not feeling in a good emotional place for a full romantic relationship with also looking for physical intimacy.

I had a short relationship earlier in the year and I don’t feel like I’m in a good time in my life to both take care of myself and keep my grades up and also maintain a healthy and loving relationship with someone else. Though I’m still good friends with the people I’ve briefly dated, I struggle with maintaining romantic relationships.

I’m in a really strenuous major and I’ve gotten comfortable with the idea of waiting to date until I have my degree. But I’m also interested in sex and physical intimacy and I’m not sure how to balance it all. I’m shy and inexperienced and unsure how to initiate hookups.

I’m not sure how to navigate that safely both in terms of sexual health and emotional health. I’ve never slept with someone I wasn’t seriously dating, so any advice on figuring out casual intimacy for the first time would be appreciated!


Study Buddy with Benefits

Dear Study Buddy,

The juggle of romantic relationships, sexual satisfaction, intentional intimacy, work, self-care, friendships, learning, just-getting-through-it-all is a common struggle. One of the cool things about doing our darndest to figure out this skill in college is that many campus communities are generally well-outfitted for developing the art of this particular balancing act.

Many campuses have sexual health and sexuality student groups (many of which host relevant workshops about sex from folks like myself — thanks y’all!). Many colleges have a conveniently campus-situated group of peers also seeking dating and/or hookups, social events where people may be mingling for just that, and most have free or low-cost sexual health services, safer-sex products, and resources.

Despite what many popular representations might show us, attending college isn’t JUST about sex and sometimes it’s not even about sex at all and that’s fine, too. But, if you are interested, it’s great to start by exploring the resources your campus has to offer. Being on a residential college campus and looking to experiment with sex and dating is like wanting to practice your baking skills and realizing that, oh wait, turns out I live in a commercial bakery that’s outfitted with state-of-the-art baking supplies and ingredients!

Except … not exactly, because you also have deadlines, school stress, mental health considerations, and general adulting for sometimes the first time ever. Taking that into consideration, it’s great that you have the self-awareness to recognize that cultivating a romantic relationship in your current educational context isn’t going to work for you right now. This kind of awareness and boundary-setting will also help you as you figure out how to scratch your sexual itch without landing in an unwanted emotional ditch.

It’s my personal belief that no-strings-attached hookups do not truly exist. There’s always at least one string, even if it’s just a little thread, when we get sexually intimate with someone. Yes, even if everyone involved has agreed to keep the feels out of it. Strings aren’t bad, they’re just something to be aware of and to manage via boundaries, communication, and expectations.

Be clear and upfront with any potential sexual partners about what you’re available for (casual sex and friendship) and what you’re not (ongoing sexual/romantic partnership). Setting these limits early is a great way to establish them as about you and your desires. Setting them after-the-fact can often feel to the other person like your post-hookup-limit-setting is personal to them which can make for hard feelings and more complexity.

This isn’t the time for innuendo, hints, and vague flirting — it’s okay to be direct and clear about what you’re seeking and will in fact increase your chances that your sexual encounters will be more satisfying for it. Dating apps have set this up as an expectation, so perhaps start there.

Finally, if we’re not bumbling our way through something, we’re not really learning or growing, we’re just performing a skill that we’ve already mastered. So, go ahead and feel those awkward growing pains — after all, that’s what college is for.

Yana Tallon-Hicks is a relationship therapist, sex educator, and writer living in the Pioneer Valley. You can find her work and her professional contact information on her website, yanatallonhicks.com.