Who’s Really Having Sex in College?

April 28, 2011

We talk an awful lot here about numbers. How many women are promiscuous, what percentage of women go for jerks, and whether there is a significant percentage of women exercising impulse control on college campuses, or even just avoiding the hookup scene altogether.

What percentage of guys get laid in college? Are 20% of them getting all the spoils, while 80% starve? How many man whores are there, really? Are all guys are only interested in casual sex? Or do some prefer relationship sex?

I’ve long hypothesized that there’s a group of highly promiscuous males roughly the same size as the group of highly promiscuous females. They represent a highly visible and socially active minority, and are considered to be “successful” with the opposite sex. A large majority of males and females has a much lower number of sexual partners, though not necessarily much less sex, and almost certainly not worse sex (if we define bad sex as excluding orgasm).

Gucci Little Piggy has a post up revealing data I haven’t seen before, taken from a 2007 study on sexual assault commissioned by the Justice Department. The study randomly selected students at two large state universities – one in the south, and one in the midwest. It was a web-based survey that subjects accessed with a link, but it was anonymous and the students were guaranteed total privacy. The survey collected data about all aspects of college life, but for our purposes the data about socializing and sexual behavior is what’s really interesting.


Social Habits of College Students

Female %Male %
Greek membership14.715.8
Attend 1+ frat parties/month26.328.1
Visit bars 1+ times/month44.444.7
Drunk/high 1+ times/month44.054.1
Drunk/high during sex 1+ times/month20.721.5


Distribution of Sexual Intercourse Partners
Female %Male %


Distribution of Dating Partners
Female %Male %



  • The researchers felt that a limitation of the study was a low response rate among males. N = 6,800; 5,466F, 1,375M
  • They cited the anonymity of the survey as a strength which provided more accurate reporting of sensitive behavior.
  • The subjects were distributed roughly equally across grades, with slightly higher representation among freshmen and seniors.

What does the data reveal about social habits?

1. Half the students drink to intoxication on a regular basis. Bars are the most  popular venue, followed by frat parties, which are attended frequently by non-Greeks.

I am surprised that half of all students drink little or not at all.

2. Only a fifth of students habitually have sex while drunk.

This calls into question that claim that students drink primarily in order to lose enough inhibition to hook up.

3. While slightly more males than females get drunk, the social habits of men and women are very similar.


What does the data reveal about sexual partners?

1. There are more male virgins than female virgins in college. The number of virgins in this study was higher than is normally estimated for college populations, which is 33% at freshman year, 12% by senior year.

The number of male virgins is actually proportionally higher due to the disproportionate enrollment of females (55% and 58% at the subject schools).

Recent research indicates that the number of virgins in college is rising, though that does not explain this 2007 finding.

2. The pattern of women having slightly more sexual partners than men is consistent throughout.

3. Approximately 92% of both men and women have had five partners or less in college.

The vast majority of college students are not promiscuous, and there is no difference between the sexes.

4. Only 3% of women and 2% of men have had eleven or more sexual partners.

This implies that the number of true “players” in college is extremely small, as is the number of highly promiscuous women.

5. Overall, the sexes show very little difference in the number of sexual partners. This would seem to confirm the hypothesis that a small percentage of promiscuous students are engaging in casual sex with one another, while a much larger group has a few partners during college, and well over a third of students have no sex at all.


What does the data reveal about dating partners?

1. Approximately 15% of females and 19% of males have had a dating relationship that did not include sexual intercourse.

2. More than two-thirds of both sexes have had 1-5 relationships in college. Again, 15-20% of these relationships appear to exclude sexual intercourse.

3. Three percent of women and two percent of men have had 11 or more dating relationships.

This takes serial monogamy to an extreme. (See Haley’s excellent graphic depiction of one of these women.)


In short, this is a very different story than college students often informally report here and on other blogs. Why is that? Some possible explanations:

  • The grass is always greener. College students regularly assume that others have it way better than they do.
  • The culture rewards casual sex, so that the most promiscuous students have outsized visibility in the population.
  • Popularity and peer approval rest on tales of exploits, which may lead students to fabricate or exaggerate sexual conquests.

I’m certain that some of you will immediately point out that in sex surveys women underreport and men overreport. Of course, that is always possible, but I doubt that explains this data for several reasons:

  • That trope goes back to the Kinsey research, when women were shamed for premarital sex. If anything, that trend has been reversed.
  • The setup of this experiment provided observable, complete anonymity.
  • The subjects were open about participating in social behaviors frequently looked down upon among undergraduates, including illegal underage drinking and drug use.

What does this mean for the SMP?

If this data is accurate, there are a lot of people in college in exactly the same boat. They are not having rampant casual sex. A small minority of promiscuous men and women are “servicing” each other while most limit their sexual activity to committed relationships. This means that there is an enormous untapped reservoir of relationship-oriented people.

This is only one study. We need more information about the sexual habits of students to draw any real conclusions. It would appear, though, that there is very little evidence that 80% of college women are chasing 20% of college men for no-strings sex. Perhaps today’s Indexed cartoon will resonate:

You Can’t Use Logic Against Belief