College students are “hooking up” more than ever, having sex with a new person every weekend and reveling in every minute of free-for-all fornication, if you believe the images portrayed in movies, television and some newspapers.
But newly compiled research by a University of Maine professor paints a different picture. Dr. Sandra Caron, who teaches family studies and human sexuality at UMaine, presents the results of a sexuality survey she’s administered over the past 20 years to thousands of college students in her new book, “The Sex Lives of College Students: Two Decades of Attitudes and Behaviors.”
“In the media there’s been a lot of discussion about college students ‘hooking up’ and ‘friends with benefits’ and those kinds of terms we hear today,” Caron said. “I think people would be surprised to know that things haven’t really changed much from 20 years ago.”
Among her findings: College students report an average of three to four sex partners. A third of students say they’ve had five or more, but just as many have had one or two partners. Nearly half the respondents say they’ve gone a few months without sex at some point during college.
Eighty-seven percent of college students say they’ve had sex, unchanged from the 1990s. The age when students lost their virginity also hasn’t shifted much over the past two decades, with most having intercourse for the first time at 16 or 17.
Caron has collected the data since 1990 through a 100-question survey administered to students during the first week of her popular human sexuality class. She incorporates results from the anonymous, voluntary survey in her lessons, but the book marks the first culmination of the data, presenting a cross-section of nearly 5,000 students in all majors, freshman to seniors, aged 18 to 22. Two-thirds of the respondents are women, half are in a serious relationship, and most identify as heterosexual.
In the book’s foreword, Dr. Clive Davis, Caron’s mentor during her doctoral studies at Syracuse University and former editor of The Journal of Sex Research, wrote that while there’s no way to know if the results are representative of society at large, “No one has collected comparable data over such a long time span … these ‘snapshots’ are often fascinating, especially if we look at them in relation to other trends in our culture over this same period of time.”
The book also won praise from William Yarber, a senior research fellow at the famed Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction, who in an endorsement called it a “must read for anyone who teaches college human sexuality classes or provides sexual health services to college students.”
Caron said she hopes the book gets people talking about sexual attitudes and perceptions, particularly those interested in the college experience.
“Either they have kids going to college, or they’ve been to college and wonder what’s going on, or you’re a college student yourself and wondering how do I fit in?” she said.
The findings range from how often college students have sex, masturbate and fake orgasm to what they think about the role of love in sex, honesty, having a gay friend and practicing safer sex.
Caron said she was surprised by the number of students faking orgasm, despite the 1960s sexual revolution and seemingly more openness about relationships. A quarter of men and two-thirds of women say they have faked orgasms, a number that rose over the study period.
“[Sex] appears to be much more about performance rather [than] enjoying yourself and the person you’re with” Caron said. “That speaks volumes to the lack of education or who’s educating this generation about what sex is supposed to be about.”
Despite public campaigns urging parents to talk to their kids about sex, there’s been little change in those conversations over the past 20 years, Caron said. Friends remain the most important influence on college students’ sexual attitudes by a wide margin, the research shows.
“These are the future teachers, doctors, lawyers, television producers and for goodness sakes parents who need this information and need to be educated and not leave it up to chance and mystery or what they’re seeing on television,” Caron said.
Less surprising is that women tend to downplay the number of people they’ve slept with, while men say a lower figure when talking to women and a higher number when talking to other men. But less expected is that the more partners a student says they’ve had, the more likely they are to lie about it. Forty percent of college students with five or more partners lied, and 56 percent of those with 10 or more partners were dishonest about the number.
Positive changes in the research include an increase in the number of college students who say they use birth control every time and a corresponding decline in unplanned pregnancies, Caron said. The research also shows students are more accepting of oral and anal sex, and more understanding of sexual diversity for people who are lesbian and gay.
Caron added several new questions to the survey in 2010 involving social media, new technology and the morning-after pill. Despite what the Anthony Weiner sexting scandal might lead us to believe, more men than women received nude photos from someone else, and more women, 42 percent, reported sending them, compared with 37 percent of men.
As Caron prepared to hand out the sexuality survey again this week, she said she hopes the book “offers a reality check about how students think about their own sexual development and desires.”
“The Sex Lives of College Students” is available at the UMaine bookstore and as an e-book and paperback through amazon.com. A companion website, sexlivesofcollegestudents.com, includes more information.