Just How Promiscuous Are College Students?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

College life has a reputation of being one big, wild party. Sex abounds, or so the rumors go. As we near the upcoming school year, parents everywhere will worry about sending their young adult off to school, especially the first year college students. After all, as parents we aren't sure just how our kids will act when we aren't around to keep them in line. In college, they take control of their own lives (but may still want parents to finance their lives) and no longer need to be home at a certain time and don't need to worry about parents or younger siblings barging in at an inopportune moment.

The Hook-Up

Kate Taylor, in an article in The New York Times states, "It is now pretty well understood hat traditional dating in college has mostly gone the way of the landline, replaced by "hooking up" - an ambiguous term that can signify anything from making out to oral sex to intercourse - without the emotional entanglement of a relationship." [1]

According to the article casual sex isn't only a "male" thing as most people think but that young women are also choosing to have a sex life but not a relationship. High standards, busy lives and demanding academics all drive the need for casual sex. Relationships take time - time that would be spent on reaching academic goals - and so, rather than give up on reaching their goals, college students are foregoing the relationship but still "hooking-up."

Years ago, young women (and their parents) saw college as a place to find a husband. But today, "women said they saw building their resumes, not finding boyfriends, as their main job." [2] Their college life is filled with classes, clubs, sports, internships and community-service projects.
Today, women marry later, deciding to finish college and start their career before getting married and having a family. So, finding time to develop a serious relationship during the college years just isn't necessary but sometimes isn't desirable.

The Other Side

Not everyone agrees that the majority of college students have decided to ditch the idea of a relationship and sleep around. Eliana Dockterman wrote an article in the New York Times in response to Kate Taylor's piece. Having recently graduated from Yale University, Eliana says of all the stories about today's hook-up culture, "They don't ring true"If you look at the data, this Ivy League hook-up culture exists for only a tiny percentage of college kids. What's more, the sex lives of most of today's college students may not be all that different from those of their parents or grandparents at the same age." [3]

Eliana believes that college kids today have sex, just as they did 20, 30, 40 years ago. She quotes a study from 1967 that found that 68 percent of men and 44 percent of women in college reported having premarital sex. Today, at Yale University, the number is 64.3 percent. [4]
According to Eliana, the amount of sex between decades ago and now hasn't changed that much"but how much and how we talk about it has. In the past, talk about sex was shunned, thought of as dirty. But today, we are a more open society and we talk, text and write about sex on a regular basis. "It's not a new trend. It's just a new conversation." [5]

But just how promiscuous are college students really?

A recent study, published in the June, 2013 issue of The Journal of Sex Research, surveyed almost 4,000 heterosexual college students between the ages of 18 and 25 - from 30 different colleges. For this survey, casual sex was defined as intercourse with someone you knew for less than one week. Overall, only 11 percent stated they had had such an encounter. [6]

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention back up these numbers. In a 2011 report regarding young women between the ages of 20 and 24:

  • 12 percent of women never had a heterosexual encounter

  • 5 percent had a sexual encounter but not in the last year

  • 58 percent had only one sexual partner

  • 14 percent had two sexual partners

  • 10 percent had more than 3 sexual partners

The men's responses weren't much different:

  • 14 percent never had a heterosexual encounter

  • 6 percent had but not in the last year

  • 50 percent had only one sexual partner

  • 12 percent had two sexual partners

  • 16 percent had more than 3 sexual partners

Based on these numbers, and there are other studies that show similar results, the hook-up culture the media frequently talks about is really only about 10 percent of the young adult population.
Most young adults seem to be in a monogamous relationship, abstain from sex or are not in a relationship at all. Eliana may be right, sex hasn't really changed all that much.


[6] "Casual Sex Rare Among College Students, But Correlated with Anxiety: Study," 2013, July 9, Tyler Kingkade, The Huffington Post

[1] [2] "Sex on Campus: She Can Play That Game, Too," 2013, Kate Taylor, The New York Times

"Sexual Behavior, Sexual Attraction, and Sexual Identity in the United States: Data From the 2006-2008 National Survey on Family Growth, " 2011, March 3, Anjani Chandra et al, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[3] [4] [5] "What Everyone's Getting Wrong About the Ivy League Hookup Culture," 2013, July 23, Elianca Dockterman, The New York Times

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.