Love, sex and success: Relationships the focus of year’s last ‘After Thoughts’

What’s love (and sex) got to do with it?

Plenty, if you ask UW-Green Bay Assistant Prof. Denise Bartell. And she’s got the data to back it up.

Bartell, Human Development and Psychology, presented the final UW-Green Bay After Thoughts address of the academic year April 9, exploring the effects college students’ romantic relationships have on their school success. She combined her original research with national data on attitudes and outcomes, presenting a talk that was by turns amusing and serious before a full house in the Weidner Center’s Grand Foyer.

Bartell kicked off her talk with three anonymous-but-true anecdotes about students she’s had in first-year seminar courses. One became involved in a healthy relationship with another of her students, and both became even stronger in terms of academics and future aspirations. A second began missing class and assignments because of a controlling boyfriend, while a third — a straight-A student athlete with an athletic scholarship — became pregnant and was forced to drop out.

“These are three different stories of students who have been in my seminar classes,” Bartell said. “And I think the point they all make is the same — and it’s the importance of students’ romantic relationships to their college success.”

It’s a dynamic that can be positive or negative, Bartell said, as students grapple with issues ranging from domestic violence to unplanned pregnancies. She also discussed the much-bemoaned practice of college students “hooking up” (that is, having a casual sexual encounter), providing data that suggest it’s not a widespread practice or concern at UW-Green Bay.

Still, not all the stats were so reassuring. National figures show that 20 to 25 percent of college students in four-year colleges have been pregnant or gotten someone pregnant — and the vast majority of those pregnancies are unplanned. A woman in college is 65 percent less likely to graduate if she becomes pregnant — yet just 55 percent of UW System students who are sexually active reported regularly using contraceptives, Bartell said. Domestic violence is a problem, as well, with 43 percent of dating college women in a recent study reporting some type of abusive dating behavior.

“What we see from this data is that, unfortunately, dating violence is quite prevalent among college students,” Bartell said. “It’s also a concern because it’s very difficult to leave abusive relationships. It’s actually more difficult to leave an abusive relationship than it is to leave a non-abusive relationship. … They often don’t recognize the warnings or the red flags.”

Bartell’s presentation was peppered with humorous moments, including a humorous yet puzzling account of “man on the street”-style interviews in which college-age men attempted to describe how the birth control pill works. She also presented the results of her own study, which measured the impact of relationship characteristics on college achievements and attitudes. Bartell found significant impacts for both genders — and noted that across the board, those impacts were stronger for males than for females.

“I was kind of blown away the first time I saw this data,” she said, “and I thought I’d done something wrong. … But when I started to think about it more, I started to think that maybe this does make sense.”

Recent trends show that women are more likely to attend and graduate from college, and are more likely to be motivated to be in college, Bartell said. So perhaps relationships are having more of an effect on men because they may not necessarily be as intrinsically driven to attend and complete college — and if women are, those relationship experiences don’t have the same impact.

So education is important, Bartell said, noting that programs like UW-Green Bay’s “Sex in the Dark” event (a chance for students to ask anonymous questions of a panel of experts) can be used to change attitudes and correct misinformation about sex and healthy relationships. She concluded her talk by sharing student evaluation comments from one of her 400-level courses.

“My personal favorite,” she said to laughter from the audience, “is, ‘this course made sense of a lot of my previous relationships.’ ”

The first After Thoughts event of the 2013-14 academic year, featuring Music Prof. Cheryl Grosso, will be held Tuesday, Oct. 1. More information about After Thoughts is available online.

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Photos by Eric Miller, Marketing and University Communication