This Week in Sex: College Back-to-School Edition


This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Study: College Students Not Having More Sex Than Their Parents Did

A lot has been written lately suggesting that college students across the country are majoring in casual sex. “Hook-up culture” has been portrayed as a new phenomenon in which romantic relationships take a back seat to friends-with-benefits relationships, and no one is looking for their future mate. But new research presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in August casts doubts on that assessment of today’s undergraduates.

Researchers used data from the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey that has been conducted since 1972, to compare answers from people who were in college between 2002 and 2010 and those who were on campus between 1988 and 1996. They found that things haven’t changed all that much.

Only one-third of students in the 2000s had had more than one sexual partner in the prior year—exactly the same proportion as in the 1980s and ’90s. About 44 percent of students in the 2000s said they had had sex with a “casual date or pickup,” compared to 35 percent in the earlier generation. Similarly, 68 percent of recent college students reported having had sex with a “friend” in the previous year, compared with 56 percent of those in the ’80s and ’90s. As for romantic relationships, 77 percent of recent students said they’ve had a regular partner or spouse, compared with 85 percent of their predecessors.

Martin Monto, a professor of sociology at the University of Portland in Oregon and the study’s lead author, said this might be explained by the increase in the average age of marriage. As he told TIME magazine, “College students today are not having more sexual partners [after] age 18, more sexual partners over the last year or more sex than their parents.”

As a member of that ’80s/’90s college cohort, I can tell you that while we may not have called it “hooking up” (at my alma mater it was called “scooping”) or used the phrase “friends-with-benefits” (our term was more off-color but more descriptive), we were doing pretty much the same stuff.

Sex Column Returns to Penn State Newspaper

The Penn State University Daily Collegian will begin running a sex column this fall for the first time since the college’s infamous sex abuse story broke in 2011. At the time, the paper was running a column called “Mounting Nitanny” which covered topics like, well, hook-up culture. The last Mounting Nittany column ran on November 3, 2011; it was scheduled to run again two days later, but that was the day Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse, so the paper had other things to cover. The next week, the column was again pulled, this time to focus on coverage of Joe Paterno’s firing. The editors of the college paper offered the columnist, Kristina Helfer, the chance to continue writing the column, but she declined, saying she felt that the tone of her pieces (which had headlines like “Let’s Talk Sex, Hugs, and Handjobs”) might not be “respectful to those who have been affected by sexual assault.”

Last week, the paper’s editor in chief announced a new sex column that will look at sex from the male and female perspectives. Each Thursday, writers using the pseudonyms Dick and Jane will “tackle sexual issues.” As the editor explained, “We’re kicking it off with the always awkward and never well-planned first time sexual encounters, and boy, do our columnists have some stories to share.”

It’s good to know that students on the Penn State campus will get back to discussing the important topics of college: hugs, handjobs, and first times.

University of Michigan Students Can Now Buy Condoms in Their Dorms

Students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are able to get condoms for free at the university’s health center, but some felt that access was not sufficient. Students petitioned housing services staff to make condoms available in dorms as well, in case some students are too shy to go to the health center or have not planned ahead.

Though the students wanted free vending machines, administrators didn’t go for it. Instead, the vending machines will dispense condoms for $1. I suppose anything that brings condoms closer to students is good, though I don’t quite understand why they couldn’t be free or why vending machines are even necessary. In my college, the resident advisers just taped envelopes full of condoms to their doors; it was a primitive system, but it worked.

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Follow Martha Kempner on twitter: @MarthaKempner