Words by Tracy Jawad and Charlotte Rubin
In a university environment, especially British universities, sex and love are almost as important as dissertation deadlines. We’re thinking boyfriends, girlfriends, open relationships, one-night stands, a mistake you made at Drapers, Grindr, Minder, Tinder, and all other apps that cleverly use rhymes to make us forget how lonely we truly are.
Queen Mary is known for being one of the most diverse universities in the country, be it ethnically, economically, or otherwise. Given that there are so many people coming from such different backgrounds, they must obviously see the world in different ways, including a diverse understanding of what sex and love entail. Inspired by Christiane Amanpour’s recently released Netflix miniseries called Sex and Love: Around the World, we decided to investigate Queen Mary students’ take on the dos and don’ts of relationships.
In order for us to see if there was a general correlation between one’s heritage and their opinions and beliefs on a subject that is more often than not a taboo, we asked students about their sex life and their views on dating. Our interviews broadly confirmed what most of us would expect. The level in which we relate to the hyper-sexuality present within a British university environment depends on many different factors, with cultural norms and religious beliefs playing an important role. However, there were also some surprises.
A dear friend of ours, let’s call her Jasmine,* agreed to share her personal experience of her time at university.
“Let’s making one thing clear: I had only ever had sex with my boyfriend before coming to university.”
Jasmine came to university and saw how other students talked about “shagging” so casually and repetitively, in a manner that was “distinctively British.” While university has influenced her views on sex and dating, she still doesn’t feel like she can completely relate to the hyper-sexual environment that she was thrown into. Now a third-year student, she uses Tinder – “something that I never thought I’d ever do”– to entertain her boredom. Let’s be real, though, it’s “also because sex is so normalized, not that it’s a bad thing – just a change.”
“I feel like people were so desperate to have sex around me and weigh in on or relate to the experiences. So many of my friends felt pressured to do this thing that everybody was else was doing. I think a part of the reason that I’m so comfortable with casual sex is because something about the attitude in the UK is so different from back home – I can’t put my finger on it. It’s almost as if people are completely desensitized from what sex can actually mean.”
Another student who offered a lengthier response to our questions was Maryam*, who moved to London as an undergraduate student with plenty of sexual experience, but still a virgin.
“People in my high school actually did have sex, but because it was such a small place, and everyone knew each other, there was no boy I was comfortable enough with to share the experience with.
I thought I’d go to university and find someone I’d either be comfortable or drunk enough with. But I got turned off by the way British boys specifically spoke about girls and their sexual encounters. It didn’t take me very long to realize that British girls were just as… (pauses) I don’t know, not really casual, but kind of degrading in the way that they had sex and the way they spoke about it.”
Maryam quickly realized that the chances of her meeting someone she felt comfortable with were very slim – she’d have to go for the second option, and it’d have to be drunk then. “Even as drunk as I’ve gotten since I moved here – and I’m not proud of it – I could hear my mom telling me that giving up myself so easily was not part of our “deen.” And for once, I would agree with my mom – I’m not religious whatsoever, but there are values that I’ve adhered to my whole life.”
Obviously, these testimonials are personal experiences that cannot be generalized, but it does tell us something about how international students, especially those with roots in other cultures, perceive the differences with their lives back home. These differences, however, are not as harsh as one may think. Contrary to our expectations and assumptions, those who identified as Middle Eastern (first gen, second gen, mixed, etc.) were just as (un)accepting of casual sex: yes, 25% of Middle Eastern students we surveyed through Google disapproved of sex outside of a relationship, but so did 21% of the “other” students. However, we did find it to be true that those from the Middle East were more likely to factor their religion and heritage into their views on relationships. Other factors that influenced their answers and positions included moving out and university culture, just as we expected.
Generically speaking, most participants agreed that growing up in general played a substantive part in exploring their sexuality, whether in a relationship or not. It is only natural that as we get older and gain more experience, our views on things like casual sex and dating apps evolve. However, there are still some prejudices against Tinder, with only 36.4% of students admitting to having an account. With one participant answering that they “believe in real life” and another claiming they “can’t take them [dating apps] seriously,” online dating is still not fully accepted by our student body.
Jokes aside, it looks like we were right, our opinions of love and sex are just as diverse as Queen Mary’s student body. We may never really understand what is so fundamentally different about the sex culture within British universities, but one thing is for sure – at the end of the day, we’re all thinking about it in some way or another