This story was originally published in the November 2021 issue of The DN.

The first time I saw a condom, I was 18 years old and sitting alone in my dorm room. I had just finished my first week on campus: meeting new people, preparing for my first college classes and going to every possible Big Red Welcome event I could find, including the street festival on Sunday well-known for its free stuff. I remember dumping my half-torn Target bag over my new bedding, sifting through my bounty. I had collected new cups, fancy pens, way too much candy and, near the foot of my bed, one of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s safer sex kits.

Like Sleeping Beauty bound for the spinning wheel, I opened the envelope and let the contents spill into my hand. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at, and so I read the instructions on the little package. 

I was holding a condom. You know, those things people use to have sex.

I remember shrieking like a schoolgirl. I dropped the condom and stepped back like it was going to start crawling toward me. All the while, I wasn’t actually frightened of the condom itself, nor was I daunted by the act of sex. Instead, I immediately felt out of my depth. This new university seemed like such a sex-positive place, somewhere to explore and expand sexually. It seemed to beckon me, and yet I felt childish and ignorant. Was I supposed to know what a condom looked like? How could I start to explore sex if I didn’t even know the basics of my own sexuality?

As students at UNL, we come from all different places and have vastly different experiences. Our sexual expertise is one such difference. Though some UNL students may come to college with comphensive sex education and expansive sexual knowledge, there are some of us that enter with relative ignorance. For us, adjusting to the climate of a sex-positive university can be daunting.

However, a sex-positive atmosphere like UNL is the perfect opportunity to embrace that ignorance. 

For students that feel uninformed about sexuality or never got the chance to truly explore themselves: use this university to ask questions and learn. Though overcoming insecurity is difficult, now is the time to embrace your sexual awakening and become more informed about sex.

I was raised in a rural western Nebraska town. It’s a heartfelt community with amazing people, and I received a good education from the high school there. That said, my sexual education was rather limited. We received abstinence training — that the safest sex is no sex — and discussions of the act iself were centered on consequences. This included a lesson on Sexually Transmitted Diseases where we performed a skit that involved giving each other chlamydia. The skit was so scarring that as of today, it is the only vividly memorable moment from the entire unit.

Now, I hadn’t come to UNL with the expectation to have lots of sex. I wasn’t sure yet what sex meant to me, and I wanted to figure that out first. That said, I hadn’t ruled it out. My mother and I decided to place me on birth control before I left home, just in case. 

Still, I didn’t expect to be confronted with sex so soon. I was unprepared, and in that regard, I wasn’t alone. It’s clear that the state of Nebraska gets its knickers in a twist about sex ed. The state currently doesn’t have any strict sexual education standards, leaving many Nebraska schools at the mercy of their instructors. After standards were proposed earlier this year to remedy that problem, they were struck down by Gov. Pete Ricketts, a staunch advocate for parent-led education. Because of this, it seems that many more young Nebraskans may enter college just like I did: unaware of how to conduct safe sexual relationships. 

This leaves the door open for even greater consequences. Unless students are informed, they may be vulnerable to STDs. People with periods may not understand their own fertility cycle like they should and may risk unwanted pregnancy. And even greater than the health risks, if uninformed about how sexual relationships operate, these students may be at risk for manipulation, assault and sexual violence without even realizing it. 

I recognize this all sounds very scary, especially for those students who may be reading this piece and beginning to panic, concerned about their own sexual naivety. First of all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something; whether it be sex, car maintenance or how to use a semicolon. There will always be gaps in our knowledge because we are products of our own socialization. Our exposure to certain concepts makes us knowledgeable. I came to college knowing how to use a semicolon because I wanted to be a writer. As a Catholic virgin from a small, Republican-dominated town, I rolled into Lincoln without a condom even crossing my mind. 

Second, even though the sex-positive atmosphere of UNL can seem daunting and overwhelming, I encourage hesitant students to embrace their own curiosity and use the space to ask questions. 

I definitely understand that this can be difficult. In college, we walk a gray area of maturity, simultaneously pretending to be adults and children, even though we’re neither. Because of that, there’s often a sense of hypersexuality in college, where casual sex is normalized and everyone should know everything about “doing it.” In order to genuinely understand sex, uninformed students must fight against the shame baked into the fabric of college sex culture. 

That said, I believe this is a worthwhile endeavor, and there are ways to go about exploring your sexual awakening that won’t feel so alienating. My greatest solution is to find a friend you trust. For me, this was one of my best friends who grew up on the East Coast. She had a much more comprehensive sexual education than I did, and I learned a lot from conversations with her. She never judged me for my ignorance, and she helped me understand sex and my own sexuality while being encouraging and informative. 

This university also has a variety of resources to get informed. If I would’ve recovered from my first-condom-shock a bit sooner, I would’ve noticed that each UNL safer sex kit contains QR codes that offer instructions for both condoms and lube. Furthermore, the organization responsible for the safer sex kits — the UNL Women’s Center — has an entire webpage dedicated to sexual health resources.

Finally, the most important part of educating yourself about sex is to have constant, honest dialogue with yourself about what you’re learning and how you’re feeling. As you learn about sex, you may decide that you’re informed and ready to take on a sexual relationship. You may decide you’d rather wait. Furthermore, as you explore your own personality, you may encounter realizations about your own sexuality, identity and attraction. Education is important because it transforms how we see ourselves and the trajectory of our lives. Students should feel empowered not only to embrace their curiosity but to use it with a goal in mind — to better understand yourself and your desires. 

UNL students with little sexual education may be overwhelmed by a university so willing to embrace healthy sexual relationships. You might find yourself with a package of condoms by the end of your first week. But for those students who wish to get informed, this is the perfect place to do so. 

Sexual understanding doesn’t have to be a taboo concept. For those of us who make a deliberate effort to understand sex and our place in it, sexual education is a journey. It is confusing. It is startling. But in the end, it’s a path that leads us to greater knowledge and a better way forward.

Emma Krab is a junior English and journalism major. Reach her at emmakrab@dailynebraskan.com.