Most students get their first taste of freedom at college, but a lack of maturity can have negative consequences. Couples and counsellors share their views about relationship trends among young adults.

IT started off with a peck on the cheek. Then came the kissing and hugging.

And before they knew it, their tops were off. But half way through the process, Mark  decided to pull away.

“I did not want to go all the way because I was worried that my girlfriend might get pregnant,” says Mark while recalling his first intimate contact with his girlfriend Julie.

According to Mark, 21, Julie is his 10th girlfriend.

Before he asked Julie out, he was actually seeing a girl he met at another college. But things didn’t work out for the young couple, so Mark decided to break up with the girl and started going out with Julie.

“I don’t take pride in the number of relationships I’ve had. In fact, I feel bad when I think about it because people see me as a playboy,” he says.

College is where most young adults get their first taste of freedom, be it through dating, drinking or driving.

After all, who can blame them for wanting to explore new and exciting boundaries after 11 years of schooling in a simple and protective environment?

Depending on how an individual defines ‘puppy love’ and ‘relationship’, some college students claim that they have been in and out of relationships since high school, with or without their parents’ knowledge.

Just ask 20-year-old Alice, who claims that she has been in more than 10 relationships.

On their anniversary, Alice’s current boyfriend of two years booked a hotel suite at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the occasion, complete with a romantic dinner and gifts.

So… did Alice come home that night after dinner?

“I told my parents that I was going to a friend’s place for a sleep over,” says the college student from Petaling Jaya.

Let’s face it: the forbidden fruit is enticing. Young adults are constantly exposed to sexual imagery.

On television, American drama series like Gossip Girl and 90210 portray steamy relationships and carefree lifestyles of students as the norm. Unsurprisingly, this is a major concern to some parents.

According to the Parents Television Council, a non-partisan education group, Gossip Girl conveys a message that sex is “a tool used to manipulate people”.

There are also plenty of kissing scenes and skimpy clothing which some parents may find it too offensive for their teenaged children’s viewing.

Casual attitude

Some young college couples embark on a relationship with little or no expectation of long-term commitment.

A check by StarEducation with college students, aged between 18 and 23, reveals that their relationships can last as short as two months, and no longer than two years.

Their casual attitude is worrying, as many of them do not understand the consequences. They think it’s normal to get in and out of relationships.

It is a form of approval and the need to feel wanted. College students are curious about their newfound freedom that often involves new and wider circle of friends,” says a college counsellor of a private institution in Petaling Jaya.

“But they have not understood the meaning and importance of commitment so they tend to follow their heart. They would probably go ‘Oh, I’m feeling good about this. Let’s go out’ in a very casual way to their object of affection. If the girl says yes, then you would feel you are accepted,” she says.

College student Derek, 20, says hugging and kissing are common and seen as ‘acceptable’ in the college dating scene.

“Couples who claim that they don’t kiss and hug are lying,” says Derek.

Some would engage in pre-marital sex without thinking twice, while others would practise abstinence.

Alice says her boyfriend refused to have sex with her because of his religious beliefs.

“His religion does not encourage him to have pre-marital sex so even though we have spent the night before, we didn’t do it.

“But I wouldn’t want to have sex with him either because I am worried that I might get pregnant,” she says.

Many of the college students cite “unwanted pregnancy” as their primary concern during the interview, when young couples planning to go into a sexual relationship.

It is also found that the college students are not worried about sexually transmitted infections (STI).

Derek says his girlfriend of five months, who is a devout Christian, is completely against the idea of pre-marital sex.

“There have been a couple of times where we both got really turned on but she doesn’t want to do it … which I respect her for.

“Even if she had said yes, I am not sure if I would have wanted to do it because I have a lot of things that I want to achieve such as setting up my own business after completing my degree.

“Protection is not 100% so an unplanned pregnancy is the last thing I want right now,” he says.

The ‘Cool’ identity

While some college students think it would make them appear ‘cool’ among their peers to have a new boyfriend or girlfriend every month, little do they know that it could actually backfire.

It could have an opposite effect which may affect their image and reputation, besides causing emotional damage to those they broke up with.

A counsellor says that students’ casual attitude when it comes to dating is worrying, as many of them do not understand the consequences.

Carrie agrees, saying that many get distracted and lose focus on the important things in life.

“They seem to think that the only thing that really matters is the relationship they are in. Some failed their exams, delayed their course of study and even had to resit for exams.

“This is simply because they do not know how to prioritise,” she says.

She adds that some students would engage in pre-marital sex and even abusive relationships, which can trigger destructive behaviours and consequences such as dropouts, abortion, cohabiting, teenage pregnancy and so on.

“They need to understand that there are emotional scars and physical damages. Broken relationships are not easy to mend. Young people may not be able to cope with it effectively.

“Some just stay away and completely stop acknowledging each other. On the other hand, we see extreme cases where they hurt themselves or try to commit suicide because of a failed relationship,” she says.

Student counselling services is a good place to seek objective advice should college students need guidance on relationship issues.

At Sunway, the counselling unit has received positive response from students.

“Based on last year’s statistics, 21% of students who come to our department to seek counselling services were boy-girl relationship and family issues related.

“Some students choose to walk in while some cases (students) are referred by their lecturers,” she says.

“We believe in a wholesome education experience and want to help them complete their studies succesfully. So when students experience problems, we encourage them to come and talk to our counsellors,” she says.

Carrie agrees, saying that students need to have an appropriate channel to share their problems.

“The college is also responsible for educating the teenagers on respectfulness and abstinence. It’s vital for the college to take on this role and not leave it entirely to the parents.

“However, it can be a tricky situation and difficult for the college to interfere, especially when it’s considered a personal problem.

“Unless they come to us, it can be difficult for us to lend our support,” she says.

What can parents do?

The dilemma that every parent goes through when it comes to educating their children about relationships and sex.

The parents should buy reading materials related to the topic for her teenaged children to read, and follow up with a discussion.

“Parents can play an effective role in helping their children understand the responsibilities that come with being in a relationship.

“They could help them set priorities by talking to their children and find out if they can really cope with their studies should they choose to be in a relationship.

The parents also should sends them for talks or camps on understanding the opposite sex.

Carrie says parents can take on the role of a friend.

“They can offer their opinions and share their own experience without coming across as too harsh or controlling, and you will find children more likely to open up to their parents.

“However, you may find that many Asian parents tend to be very uptight and domineering so much so that their teenage children find it difficult to approach them, and insecure to discuss any matters, let alone relationship problems.

“Many parents feel uncomfortable to talk about relationships and may just leave it to the children to ‘discover’ for themselves, which may yield negative results,” she says.