College student sex stats: Am I the only one not doing it?

Originally Published: March 22, 2002 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 31, 2012
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Dear Alice,

Do you know how many college students are having sex? Are there any statistics? I was wondering if it is lower than a lot of people would have you believe. I feel like I'm the only one sometimes who is not having sex. Thought maybe I'd see if it was true. Thanks.

Dear Reader,

Even if you were the only college student not having sex, that wouldn't make you "strange" or abnormal. You would just be doing what feels comfortable for you. People ultimately make their own choices based on many factors, including privacy, opportunity, finding a caring partner, cultural and/or religious beliefs, and trust levels.

When it comes to sex, or even alcohol and other drug use, among college students, what students perceive may not necessarily be what's real. So while it may seem that many college students are having "sex" while "hooking up," the research shows that many are not. A study of undergraduates at four universities demonstrated how college students' perceptions of their peers' sexual activity can be overestimated. A study by Scholly et.al. asked questions about various sexual behaviors. While 80 percent of students had 0 or 1 sexual partner during the preceding year, only 22 percent of those students believed their fellow students had one or fewer partners. Therefore, students in this study perceived their fellow students were more sexually active than they actually were. In fact, 59 percent of students reported having no sexual activity within the past 30 days.

Similar findings have been reported in the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA) year after year. The majority of survey participants had 1 or fewer sexual partners during the previous year; however, the common belief among respondents was that their peers had at least 3 partners during the previous year.

Although national statistics on college students' sexual behaviors are available, rarely have study sponsors asked participants precise questions about specific sexual activities. For many, especially college students, hooking up means different things to different people. One person's hook up may be a simple kiss, while another person's may include oral, anal, and/or vaginal penetration. As a result, one may get the impression that everyone who hooks up is having intercourse or penetration. How people define sex or interpret certain sexual behaviors shape their answers to the questions asked.

A good example of this is a study conducted by Zogby International and commissioned by the Foundation for Academic Standards & Tradition (FAST), a nonprofit student advocacy organization. College students were asked, "Are you sexually active?" Fifty-six-and-a-half percent of the students replied "yes"; 40.4 percent said they were not. Of the students who answered "yes," 7.9 percent said that they had not had sex during the preceding semester. The survey, however, did not define "sexually active." To some, "sexually active" meant foreplay or sexual intercourse, but to others it meant passionate kissing.

An additional national study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asked fifteen questions about sexual behavior. For the purpose of this particular survey, "sexual intercourse" was defined as vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, or oral/genital sex. This study also found that 79.5 percent of college students 18 to 24-years-old had had sexual intercourse and that 55.4 percent had had sexual intercourse during the 30 days preceding the survey.

But since neither of the latter two studies presented here addressed other specific sexual behaviors, the college students who participated were able to interpret most questions for themselves. This resulted in statistics that covered a broad range of nonspecific behaviors, making these studies less than definitive. And bear in mind that not every member of the student body was surveyed; the personality of a student who is willing to participate in such a survey may also influence the results.

You might think of it this way: Plenty of people are talking about doing it, but you can't prove that they actually did anything. And, for a host of reasons, far fewer people are talking about not doing it. As a result, be assured you are not the only college student who is not having sex. Either way, it's important to be true to yourself — to have sex, the kind that you want, by yourself or with a consenting partner, when/because you want to, and not because of anybody else's behavior.

Alice