In 30 years of administering the same sexuality survey to students aged 18 to 22, University of Maine family studies and human sexuality professor Sandra Caron has been nearly as surprised by the things that have stayed the same, as by the things that have changed when it comes to their attitudes toward all things sex.
The updated findings from asking those questions to what’s now been multiple generations of UMaine college students have been printed in the third edition of Caron’s book, “The Sex Lives of College Students,” published last month by Maine College Press.
“Some things just haven’t changed very much, like the fact that most people lose their virginity when they’re 16 or 17,” Caron said. “But some things have changed quite a bit. The fact that we’ve been able to document that in this particular sample of people over all these years is pretty interesting. It’s not the end-all sample size, but it certainly paints a picture of where we were and where we are now.”
For instance, 75 percent of the students surveyed say they have never asked their father a question about sex, compared with 36 percent who say they have never asked their mother. By comparison, only 11 percent say they regularly ask their mother about sex, and only 3 percent say they regularly ask their father. Those numbers have barely budged in 30 years.
“Students are still saying, all these years later, ‘I don’t talk to my parents about sex. I don’t ask them questions.’ A daughter might occasionally ask her mother, but the father, he’s virtually non-existent,” Caron said. “As a society, we’re sex-saturated, but we’re sex-silent. We haven’t moved very far when it comes to sex education in this country.”
Caron began giving the survey during her first year as a professor at UMaine in 1990. The questions were initially developed by her doctoral adviser at Syracuse University, Sol Gordon, who also did the survey each year. Caron updated the survey in 2010 to include new questions about technology and pornography, but otherwise, the questions have stayed the same.
Some things, like practicing safe sex and using contraception, are commonplace and widely practiced. Attitudes toward HIV/AIDS have shifted as well — in the early 1990s, 99 percent of students said they were very concerned about the virus. Today, only 80 percent of them are, which Caron believes is due in large part to widespread education, and to medications that now greatly reduce the mortality rate of HIV/AIDS patients.
Caron asks students to rate themselves on the Kinsey scale, a scale on which zero is exclusively heterosexual, and six is exclusively homosexual. While the number of male students who consider themselves anything other than exclusively heterosexual has not changed very much in the past 30 years, the number of women who rank themselves as a “one” has risen from 3 percent to 20 percent.
Caron believes some of that has to do with far more widespread acceptance of homosexuality in general, across society. But part of the reason more young women rate themselves as a “one” has to do with women trying to please male partners by engaging sexually with another woman for the purpose of the man’s sexual gratification, she said. There are many other ways that women do this, like shaving their pubic hair because it has become normalized through porn. Caron said that today, 98 percent of her students of both sexes say they shave their pubic hair.
The widespread availability of porn via the internet has certainly changed some attitudes toward sex. Caron is quick to point out, however, that the only thing that’s actually changed about porn over the years is its accessibility.
“Pornography has always been around. The internet certainly made it easier to access, but let’s be real. We didn’t invent it. If you can think it, it’s out there,” Caron said. “What is lacking is education. What is lacking is the conversation about it.”
One data point Caron points to is the fact that around 70 percent of women in the survey say they have faked an orgasm, compared to around 28 percent of men. That number in both sexes has increased by about a third over the past 30 years.
“You have to ask, ‘Why is she faking it?’ And usually it’s either to get it over with, or to please her partner, or to make it look like there’s not something ‘wrong’ with her,” Caron said. “It represents that in some ways, what they are doing is more performance-based, rather than pleasure-based. And that can lead to a lot of issues in terms of your being in touch with your own sexuality.”
Caron’s class on human sexuality has remained one of the most popular classes at UMaine for decades, and there’s a good reason why. Not only is it a topic that everyone has personal experience with, but Caron, with her gentle, good-humored approach to talking about sex combined with her grounding in science, has helped generations of UMaine students think more deeply about who they and their peers are as sexual beings. In 2019, Caron was named UMaine’s distinguished Maine professor.
“The point of this book and of all of this is to have more public discussions about our private parts,” Caron said. “I think discussing it frankly helps us all to feel less alone. We’re not alone in how we are similar, and in how wonderfully diverse we all are.”
More of Caron’s findings can be found on her website, sexlivesofcollegestudents.com.