Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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In a recent debate about monogamy, I observed that college students, and young people in general, tended to be more promiscuous early in life and settled down later. My comrade said that was a myth popularized by the media and cited a source to the effect that college people were quite monogamous. So which is it? —Mike Thorne

Depends on your idea of promiscuity. If you merely mean that people in their carefree twenties have more sex partners and for that matter more sex (i.e., any) than they do after acquiring spouses and mortgages, the answer is: Of course, what else would you expect?

On the other hand, perhaps your comrade has been browsing in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines “promiscuous” as “undiscriminating in sexual relations…characterized by frequent changes of sexual partner.” In short, he could think the question isn’t whether college students get laid somewhat more often than their elders, but whether they’ll screw anything with a pulse. Generally speaking the answer seems to be no, but with an asterisk, which I’ll explain.

Let’s look at the general population aged 20 to 24, whose sexual habits have been studied with great devotion by the Centers for Disease Control. Within this group, 12 percent of women have never had opposite-sex sexual contact; 5 percent have, but not in the last year; 58 percent have had one sexual partner in that time; 14 percent have had two; and 10 percent have had three or more.

Men’s responses break down similarly, which is surprising given the male propensity to lie: 14 percent have never had heterosexual sex; 6 percent have but not recently; 50 percent have had one partner in the last year; 12 percent have had two; and 16 percent have had three or more.

Other interesting tidbits for your voyeuristic pleasure: Nearly one in three women has had anal sex and one in six a same-sex encounter by the time they’re 24. Men report about the same number in the hetero anal sex department, but far fewer acknowledge same-sex experiences—just 6 percent.

Conclusion #1: Even as kids, most of us lead sedate sexual lives, with only a minority getting a lot of action. Hardly the impression you get from our salivating media, which leads us to conclusion #2: Sex—at least of the rambunctious variety prized by the tabloids—is largely a spectator sport.

But you asked about college students. Turning to this subset we find the following:

  • The 2008 National College Health Assessment found that 13 percent of women and 18 percent of men reported having three or more sexual partners, same- or opposite-sex, in the previous year, numbers in line with the CDC’s general-population figures above. However, only 24 percent of male and 19 percent of female college students had had anal sex, rates significantly lower than the CDC found. What does this tell us? Beats me.
  • Going way back, the New England Journal of Medicine tracked the sexual lives of women students from 1975 to 1989 and found the number who’d had one or fewer sexual partners in the previous year ranged from 58 to 63 percent, showing little change over time. But partner quantity increased significantly—the number of college women who’d had only one sexual partner decreased by half, while the number who’d had two to five partners increased by 29 percent.
  • A 2004 University of Pennsylvania study of a mostly collegiate crowd found men on average had had a little over four partners of either sex, while women had under three, about the same numbers as in the general population.

Given these unimpressive numbers, one may ask whence comes the belief that college life is a nonstop orgy. Hollywood surely bears much of the blame, but another factor may be the collegiate phenomenon known as a hookup—a casual, short-term sexual encounter not necessarily ending in intercourse, which has replaced that obsolete ritual the date.

A survey of 555 northeastern college students found 78 percent had had at least one hookup, although only 30 percent had had a hookup leading to intercourse. One in seven hooker-uppers had to rely on the recollections of their friends to piece together the events leading up to whatever it was they’d gotten into, one in six felt pressured to go through with it, and less than one in eight had a hookup evolve into a long-term relationship.

Another study of 382 college students found 37 percent had most recently hooked up for sex with a stranger or someone they hardly knew, and one in five was cheating on a current partner. So promiscuity-wise, we relics can take comfort in knowing that while college students may not be outdoing us in terms of quantity, what sex they do have, by and large, is just as cheap. —Cecil Adams

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