The Definitive Survey of College Students’ Sexual Behavior By Gender

August 6, 2012

A frequent source of debate here is the question of what percentage of students in college are participating in hookup culture, i.e. casual sex. Regular readers know that I have made the following tentative statement:

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.

Who’s Really Having Sex in College?

In other words, there are approximately equal numbers of each sex having most of the casual sex. It is my assumption that they pretty much service one another – if promiscuous men are getting with sexually inexperienced women, then the reverse must also be true, and this seems highly unlikely. 

My claim is derived from two primary sources of data:

I.  U.S. Dept. of Justice Campus Sexual Assault Study, 2007

Distribution of Sexual Intercourse Partners*
 Female %Male %
037.242.8
1-554.149.4
6-105.75.6
11-252.00.9
26+1.11.3

 *Intercourse not defined.

N= 26,764

The subjects were distributed roughly equally across grades, with slightly higher representation among freshmen and seniors.

II. The National College Health Assessment, 2010

Distribution of Sexual Partners*

# partners

Males %

Females %

0

34

34

1

38

43

2

10

10

3

6

6

4

4

3

5

3

2

6

1

1

7

1

1

8

1

0

9+

3

1

*Includes vaginal, anal and oral sex partners.

N = 18,820 females, 10,080 males; 35% freshmen, 19% sophomores, 19% juniors, 11% seniors, 5% fifth year, 9% graduate students

My claim that the promiscuous students are somewhat insular on campus has been hotly disputed here, primarily by males who believe that most if not all women will hook up with a player or cad if given the opportunity. One enterprising young fellow even crunched his own numbers for the NCHA to determine the mean number of partners in the 9+ category in an effort to prove me wrong. (H/T: Wudang) 

I said before that the top 2.6% of men were responsible for 29% of the lays. For the same proportion of women, 2.6% (n = 491) are responsible for 18.8% of the lays among women. That means the top guys are taking a much bigger share of the lays than the top girls are. The sluttiest guys are sluttier than the sluttiest girls. The only way that’s possible is if slutty guys are banging girls less slutty than themselves. Which is what I have been saying all along, and directly contradicts Walsh’s explanation of players banging whores.

Indeed, his calculations are correct, but he failed to take several factors into account about the data, which together void his conclusion:

  1. The data is sourced from 39 diverse colleges and universities. Because the national college sex ratio is 60% female and 40% male, there will be 50% more slutty girls on campus than guys if 20% of each group is promiscuous.
  2. Of the respondents, 50% of females were in committed relationships, vs. 41% of males.
  3. The data includes 474 gay males, or 5% of the male respondents, who are undoubtedly heavily represented among the 263 men in the 9+ category, with a mean of 19 partners. 
  4. The data includes 671 lesbians, or 4% of the female respondents. There are only 155 females in the 9+ group. They likely have fewer sexual partners than straight women.

In an effort to gain additional insight about the sexual behavior of college students, especially the highly promiscuous, I have conducted an exhaustive search for the past week to uncover any and all pertinent data. 

First a word about real vs. perceived sexual behavior on American college campuses:

The Role of Pluralistic Ignorance in Perpetuating Hookup Culture

More college students hook up than actually date, but most prefer to date, Washington Post, 5/9/10

A new study by psychologists at James Madison University found — not surprisingly — that college students hooked up almost twice as often as they went on actual dates. The perplexing part? The majority of students from both genders said that given the choice, they preferred traditional dating.

All things being equal, 95 percent of female students said they would choose dating over hooking up, and 77.5 percent of men said the same.

So, uh, why don’t they just date?

Arnie Kahn, one of three co-authors of the study, which grew out of undergraduate student Carolyn Bradshaw’s thesis, says it comes down to something called “pluralistic ignorance.” Essentially: Everybody’s doing it, so it must be good.

One of Kahn’s previous studies on the topic found that both men and women overestimated the degree to which the opposite gender enjoyed hooking up — described in this study as “a sexual encounter, usually lasting only one night, between people who are strangers or brief acquaintances.”

Furthermore, students overestimated how much members of their own gender liked hooking up. “Because everybody else is hooking up you assume that they do it because they like it. Whereas you know that you don’t like it that much, but you do it to go along,” Kahn explains. “College students are very conformist.”

…The study, based on surveys of 220 undergrads, found that students are plenty aware of the risks of hooking up, as well. Because hookups are not always planned and often not with a well-known partner, a majority of both male and female students said they saw the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease as a major risk. Almost 40 percent of women also said the potential for pregnancy was a big downside.

Increasingly, institutions are studying their own student populations. 

Researchers at Duke University took a random sample of almost 1,500 students at their Durham, N.C. campus and found that only about one-third of students had previously had a hookup in college. Researchers surveyed 732 freshmen and 723 seniors and found that of the one-third in each grade that have had a hookup, less than half involved oral sex or vaginal intercourse. The study also found that nearly 60% of the freshmen reported that they had never had sexual intercourse.

Statistical Inaccuracies By Gender

There’s also the persistent problem that men, especially in the general population, report more sexual intercourse partners than women do. It is logically impossible for men to have a different total number of sex partners than women in a closed heterosexual population. Obviously, this discrepancy is more meaningful and problematic when discussing countrywide statistics. 
 
Several factors have been shown to influence self-reported sexual activity by gender:
 
1. National sampling typically excludes female sex workers. Adding in visits to prostitutes evens the score.
 
2. Women report more sexual partners when they are assured anonymity, reducing their fear of a sexual double standard.
 
Additional factors apply to college settings:
 
3. Nationwide the sex ratio of 60% females to 40% males.
 
4.  Changing gender norms for sexual behaviors is reducing the discrepancy between male and female reporting. The oft-cited “lie detector study” did not rise to statistical significance. According to its authors:

Several recent sexuality surveys have found no sex differences in self-reported sexual behavior (Browning, Kessler, Hatfield, & Choo, 1999), incidence of casual sexual interactions (Maticka-Tyndale, Herold, & Mewhinney, 1998; Paul, McManus, & Hayes, 2000), number of sexual partners in the past year (Brown & Sinclair, 1999), or desired number of lifetime sexual partners (Pedersen et al., 2002). The lack of sex differences in these studies and in our analysis may reflect currently shifting gender roles and their subsequent impact on normative expectations and expressions of sexual behavior. 

5. Some studies have found that men admit to greater dishonesty than women, as they tend to round up to larger numbers when recalling the number of past sexual partners. (Their numbers tend to end in 0 or 5.) In one study, removing the men who acknowledged exaggerating eliminated all gender discrepancy in the number of reported partners.
 
According to researcher and sociology professor Lisa Wade, a recent online survey notes that 60% of older teenage men lie about their sexual activities.

Sampling Bias

It is important to keep in mind that college women hook up the most freshmen year, and participation drops sharply after that each year. In contrast, men’s frequency of hooking up does not diminish over time (Bogle, 2008). For this reason, studies with equal numbers of students in each year are the most accurate, but they are also the most difficult to come by, as studies tend to include disproportionate numbers of freshmen.

To the best of my knowledge, the following data comprises all available sources of hooking up research. Any additional links or sources would be greatly appreciated. 

A. Short-Term Prospective Study of Hooking Up Among College Students

N = 301 females, 93 males; 41% freshmen, 33% sophomores, 20% juniors, 6% seniors

In one semester, hookup up activity was as follows:

 Female %Male %
No hookup47.232.3
Non-penetrative hookup26.222.6
Penetrative hookup26.645.2

 

B. The Casualties of `Casual’ Sex: A Qualitative Exploration of the Phenomenology of College Students’ Hookups

 N= 155 females, 32 males; 4% freshmen, 44% sophomores, 27% juniors, 25% seniors 

 70% of students hooked up at least once during college.

26% of females had intercourse during a hookup.

44% of all hookups happened at Greek social events.

 

C. Hooking Up on Campus: Cognitive Dissonance and Sexual Regret Among College Students

N = 158 females, 134 males; 89% freshmen, 5% sophomores, 5% juniors, 2% seniors

 The distribution of the number of hookups vs. sexual (vaginal) intercourse varies greatly:

Number of Hookups

 Male NMale %Female NFemale %
036275233
1-542316239
6-1021162013
11-15151142.5
16-2064.553
21-254321
26-300042.5
31-3521.500
36-4021.532
41-450011
46-501100
50+53.753

Number of Sexual Intercourse Partners

 Male NMale %Female NFemale %
028215434
1-386648856
4-61612138
7-921.511
10-121111
13-151111

 

Sexual intercourse with someone once and only once:

Males  40%

Females 24%

Sexual intercourse with someone known less than 24 hours:

Males 29%

Females 10%

Received or performed oral sex with someone known less than 24 hours:

Males 34%

Females 9%

D. Prevalence and Characteristics of Sexual Hookups Among First-Semester Female College Students

N = 118 females, mean age of 18

In first semester of college, percentage who hooked up:

Kissing: 65%

Touching breasts: 58%

Touching genitals: 46%

Oral sex: 27%

Vaginal sex: 27%

Anal sex: 1%

Who they hooked up with:

Friends: 47%

Acquaintances: 23%

Strangers: 14%

Ex-boyfriends: 12%

44% of hookups were at least Round 2.

 

E. Hooking Up and Penetrative Hookups: Correlates that Differentiate College Men

N = 412 males, 36% freshmen, 36% sophomores, 18% juniors, 9% seniors, mean age of 19.4

A majority of studies on hooking up among college students included samples of both men and women. Although they often compare men and women, many have small samples of men. Thus, findings that make gender comparisons may largely be driven by female responses.

Further, those comparing men and women fail to address potentially important within-group variations. Such within-group variation is critical to prevention and intervention programs and this study answered the call of researchers to report specifically on the experiences of men who are hooking up. 

…Men who dropped out had significantly more hookup partners in the past 4 months(M=2.63) compared to men who completed the study (M=1.82). Given this difference, our results may be more conservative findings of hooking up and hookup behaviors among men.

69% of subjects reported hooking during one semester. 

73% of those, or 50% overall, included sexual intercourse.

Primary predictors of hooking up:

  1. Extraverted personality
  2. High alcohol consumption
  3. Previous hookup experience
23% were in stable, committed romantics relationships throughout the semester. Of these, 44% of these hooked up with other females, and 67% of these hookups, or 30% of the boyfriends cheated with intercourse.

 

F. HerCampus.com annual Ultimate College Guy Survey, 2011

N > 1000 males

 Girls Hooked Up WithGirls Had SEX With
04.6%15.0%
1-211.1%32.3%
3-411.3%20.2%
5-714.3%11.3%
8-1010.8%7.3%
10-2020.3%8.7%
20-3012.1%1.9%
30-405.4%0.6%
40-503.3%0.5%
>504.2%1.0%
>1002.5%1.2%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

G.  Hook-Up Behavior: A Biopsychosocial Perspective

 

  Note: Unintentional hookups refer to excessive alcohol or drug use.

Very few participants (6%) actually expected hook-ups to result in traditional romantic relationships, although over one-third (37%) indicated that ideally they would.

Slightly less than one-third (30%) expected hook-ups to result in nothing more between the participants, although very few (13%) indicated that this would be ideal. For both men and women, the most common expected outcome following a hook-up was further hookups (43% for men and 36% for women).

However, the ideal outcome following a hook up differed by gender, with the highest proportion of men (32%) hoping for additional hook-ups, but the largest proportion of women (43%) hoping for a traditional romantic relationship.

 

Key Findings

 1. Student misperceptions of sexual norms on campus, known as Pluralistic Ignorance, perpetrates hookup culture and affects personal behavioral decisions.

2. Both male and female college students lie about their number of sexual partners.

3. The college sex ratio influences the supply and demand curves for sex and relationships. It also means that equal proportions of promiscuous males and females will produce a larger number of promiscuous girls than guys on campus.

4. Studies consistently estimate that 26-27% of freshmen women have sexual intercourse during at least one hookup. (12% of those partners are ex-boyfriends.) 

5. Studies estimate that 45-50% of males have sexual intercourse while hooking up over the course of a semester.

6. Half of men and women who hook up are seeking a traditional romantic relationship.

7. A small minority of students has had more than 50 hookups (3.7% M, 3% F) and 6 sexual partners (3.5% M, 3% F).

 

The data clearly confirms my earlier hypothesis:

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.