The Unhealthy Pressures Surrounding Sex for College Men

Daniel Bowe delves into the futile burden placed on men in university to be sexually active

Like many young men, when I began my first year of college, I felt tremendous pressure to be sexually active. Listening to boastful tales from my newfound peers, I found myself believing that if I were to fit in, it was expected that I should be having sex often. 

While these pressures came from others, there was also a great deal of it which I put on myself. I found myself in a toxic mindset, in which I sought validation and sought social approval through sexual interactions. Naturally, with my self-worth being based on something so tenuous, it created a large amount of social anxiety. 

I naively believed that this was a unique problem, that this was something which particularly affected me, but over time when talking to other male friends, my perception of it has changed. As we became more vulnerable with each other, we began to open up far more to the pressures we felt, and discovered that much of these were quite similar. The pressure to constantly desire sex, to be sexually active, and to be good at it were common, and appeared to play a large role in creating anxiety. 

In discovering that I was not alone in feeling this way I found comfort. In the reverse, in recognising how common this may well be, I had the desire to understand it better. To understand where these pressures come from, what their consequences are, and how we can go about solving them. 

Like many problems that men face, it is a problem that has been created by men. Men put this pressure unto one another, but equally there is a strong internal pressure felt. While much of the pressure comes from the pursuit of social validation, much of it also comes from within. 

A harsh realisation I had was how sex plays a role in my identity as a man. To be unable to succeed in the pursuit of sex demonstrated a deficiency in myself; that I was in some way inadequate. More than just making me feel unattractive or uninteresting, there was a feeling of emasculation. 

To understand this feeling of emasculation, I had to recognise my own internalised ideas of what a man should be. Through a patriarchal lens, a man who is sexually active and sleeps with multiple partners is someone to be held in high esteem. In this view, a large part of a man’s value comes from his ability to find sexual partners. 

This is a questionable belief for many obvious reasons, but one that many men including myself internalise from their early teenage years. This can cause someone to put pressure upon themselves, in which unless you are sexually active, you lose your value as a man. 

This view of sex also creates a social pressure, where sex is viewed as an accolade. “Much work on hegemonic masculinity suggests that men’s behaviour is shaped by the desire to impress other men”, and with sex it is no different. 

Many of us will be familiar with the term ‘Locker Room talk’, in which typically straight men talk of sexual encounters in a chauvinistic and boastful manner. It is a form of toxic masculinity, and one which will not improve by ignoring it. 

Often the issue is that even if a man is uncomfortable with what has been said, fear of social rejection prevents him from calling it out. I speak from my own experience, and admit while I was never the most vocal, I felt a pressure to have some story of my own, or be at risk of seeming prudish or incompetent in some way. 

It took time and maturity to escape this, and surround myself with others who do not place my social worth on something so superficial and fragile. In doing this I became far less anxious. 

Being surrounded by others who would not stand for this type of conversation and just by seeing the impact, I realised that just as this problem has been created by men, it is something that can be resolved by men. 

“I realised that just as this problem has been created by men, it is something that can be resolved by men.”

I wanted to write about these pressures because although they have and continue to exist for young men everywhere, I have noticed that they are particularly potent in college life. 

For many students beginning their first year of college, it is the first time they are truly free to explore and have their first sexual encounters. However, with this comes a certain expectation. 

As discussed previously, many men feel that if they are not having sex regularly, that it emasculates them or takes away from their value. In a time such as the first year of college where it is often expected that you are going to be having sex, the pressure becomes more pronounced. 

This can create a toxic culture, with a clear example being the Halls Confessions Instagram page. Created early in my first term, it was an account in which followers who were typically halls residents, would send in anonymous messages about other residents that often took a sexual tone. On many occasions, they would share explicit details about certain individuals in a malicious manner.

It served to create insecurity and as a result, meant that many felt they should conform to certain social expectations. This affected men and women alike, yet rarely was the vindictive nature of these posts called out. 

Although through an Instagram account, it is still doing something we are all familiar with, ‘locker room talk’. Thus, we must treat it the same, by calling it out when we see it and not permitting it in our lives. 

Awareness is key here, yet awareness alone will not solve the problem. Firstly, we must encourage healthier dialogue amongst men. In my own experience, being vulnerable with other men on this issue shed a new light on the problem. 

The pressure seemed to lessen when we all realised the detrimental impact it had on us. For many men, being vulnerable to each other is a difficult task. By breaking down this barrier, I believe there is a chance for real growth. 

Equally, media which perpetuates many of these beliefs must be called out and shunned out of public discourse. ‘Alpha male’ commentators such as Andrew Tate have been well critiqued already, yet figures similar to him still regularly feature on the TikTok or Instagram feed of young men. The effort needs to be made in which these are replaced with healthier discourse on male identity, and this needs to happen now. 

These issues are harming young men, impacting their mental health and their relationships with others. No longer can we excuse it as ‘just how men are’; instead we must move towards change.