In a few short weeks, college students across the country will head to Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach for the annual ritual known as spring break, which has become synonymous with drinking and sex. A new study looks specifically at college students’ behavior with regards to sex and drinking while on spring break and how their behavior is related to what they think everyone else is doing.
Researchers surveyed more than 1,500 students from a large Northwestern college after spring break 2009. Participants were asked about their relationship status, who they went to spring break with, how many sexual partners they had during that period
, and how much alcohol they drank. They were also asked how many times they thought the typical student at their school had sex during spring break and how much they thought those students drank before their sexual encounters.
Half of the students reported going on a spring break trip. Of those, 35.5 percent went with a friend or friends, and 10 percent traveled with a romantic partner. Almost a third of spring breakers (32 percent) had sex while they were away, and 16 percent of them said it was casual sex. Moreover, almost half of the people who had sex (46.7 percent) said that they had been drinking before sex (an average of 4.17 drinks), and 52.2 percent said they did not use condoms all week. Women in the study were more likely than the men surveyed to drink before sex and to have sex without condoms. In addition, risk behaviors were cumulative, meaning that those who engaged in one risk behavior, such as drinking, also appeared to engage in others, like casual sex without a condom.
The researchers found that college students who took spring break trips with a romantic partner had more sex during the week, were more likely to drink before sex (but drank less), and were more likely to use condoms.
Analysis of the data found that those who believed risky behavior was the norm were more likely to engage in risky behavior. On the flip side, those who believed that condom use was normal were more likely to use condoms.
The researchers point out that while other studies have found college students underestimate condom use in most situations, this study found that
students overestimate how often their peers are using condoms while on spring break. The authors suggest that college students may see spring break as a time during which casual sex is more expected and associate that with a lack of condom use.
The authors believe that these results give unique insight into the ritual of spring break and can help college health educators plan interventions. First, the results help educators identify those students at risk (the ones planning on taking a spring break trip with friends). The results also underscore that a student’s perceptions of what is “typical” for spring break predict his or her behavior that week. Working to change these perceptions may be the first step to changing real-life behavior.