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The Reality Of College Students’ Sex Lives

October 29, 2010

Not too terribly long ago, while waiting for class to start, some students were talking about their “crazy” weekend, and basically led on like every weekend consists of a huge drunken orgy.  The teacher rolled her eyes, and the guys started laughing.

As I listened, I thought to myself, “I’d like to know what percentage of students take part in such events.  I’d also be curious to know the degree of their participation.”  I speculated that that students weren’t near as comfortable in those situations as they let on, but I really didn’t know.  I also guessed that men would like that sort of thing more than women, but that was just mere speculation, which I was basing primarily on evolutionary psychology.   I didn’t have any hard facts to back my assertion.

So I decided that I’d research it out.  It turns out that the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology has published several detailed papers on the sex lives of college students.  The studies are more detailed than I could have imagined.  Some are on kissing, others are on factors contributing to sexual attraction, and others are on views toward commitment.  But the study that really caught my attention was Hooking up:  Gender Differences, Evolution, and Pluralistic Ignorance (2010).   It’s exactly what I wanted to know.  This particular study comprised a random sample of 507 students, who basically responded by filling out a detailed survey about their sex lives, how often they took part in various sexual encounters, and how comfortable they were in various sexual situations.

Participants were asked questions related to,

(1) How comfortable are you with engaging in the following activities during a hook-up?
(2) Think of the average person of the same sex as you. How comfortable do you think this person of the same sex is with engaging in the following activities during a hook-up?
(3) Think of the average person of the opposite sex as you. How comfortable do you think this person of the opposite sex is with engaging in the following activities during a hook-up?

The five behaviors that participants rated for each question were: sexual touching above the waist, sexual touching below the waist, oral sex (giving), oral sex (receiving), and intercourse. Participants also indicated which of these behaviors they had actually engaged in during a hook-up.

And what sorts of results did they find?  Well, they found what I pretty much expected.

Abstract: “Hooking-up” – engaging in no-strings-attached sexual behaviors with uncommitted partners – has become a norm on college campuses, and raises the potential for disease, unintended pregnancy, and physical and psychological trauma. The primacy of sex in the evolutionary process suggests that predictions derived from evolutionary theory may be a useful first step toward understanding these contemporary behaviors. This study assessed the hook-up behaviors and attitudes of 507 college students. As predicted by behavioral-evolutionary theory: men were more comfortable than women with all types of sexual behaviors; women correctly attributed higher comfort levels to men, but overestimated men’s actual comfort levels; and men correctly attributed lower comfort levels to women, but still overestimated women’s actual comfort levels. Both genders attributed higher comfort levels to same-gendered others, reinforcing a pluralistic ignorance effect that might contribute to the high frequency of hook-up behaviors in spite of the low comfort levels reported and suggesting that hooking up may be a modern form of intrasexual competition between females for potential mates.

And what is pluralistic ignorance exactly?

Pluralistic ignorance (PI) has been demonstrated to play a role in hook-up behavior. PI is characterized by individuals behaving in accordance with (generally false) beliefs attributed to the group, regardless of their own beliefs (Fields and Schuman, 1976; Miller and McFarland, 1987). Lambert, Kahn, and Apple (2003) found that young adults routinely believe that others are more comfortable with various sexual behaviors than they, themselves, are. This leads them to behave as if they were more comfortable than they actually are, and engage in behaviors with which they are not actually comfortable.

And can we be more detailed as to who we’re dealing with in this study?

Participants included 507 undergraduate students at a mid-sized public university. The sample was 55% female (n = 277) and 45% male (n = 227). The mean age of participants was 19.7 years (SD = 1.7). Participants included 42% first-year/freshmen (n = 214), 28% second-year/sophomores (n = 140), 16% third-year/juniors (n = 82), and 14% fourth-year/seniors (n = 71).

So, what percentage of students are involved in these hookup relationships, and how far do they go?

And just how comfortable were they doing this?

It looks like men are down for just about anything.  Women seem ok with being touched, but are uncomfortable with anything more.

Steven Pinker, in his book How The Mind Works (1997), talked about these same issues.

The first question of strategy is how many partners to want. Remember that when the minimum investment in offspring is greater for females, a male can have more offspring if he mates with many females, but a female does not have more offspring if she mates with many males—one per conception is enough. Suppose a foraging man with one wife can expect two to five children with her. A premarital or extramarital liaison that conceives a child would increase his reproductive output by twenty to fifty percent. Of course, if the child starves or is killed because the father isn’t around, the father is genetically no better off. The optimal liaison, then, is with a married woman whose husband would bring up the child. In foraging societies, fertile women are almost always married, so sex with a woman is usually sex with a married woman. Even if she is not, more fatherless children live than die, so a liaison with an unmarried partner can increase reproduction, too. None of this math applies to women. A part of the male mind, then, should want a variety of  sexual partners for the sheer sake of having a variety of sexual partners.

Do you think that the only difference between men and women is that men like women and women like men? Any bartender or grandmother you ask would say that men are more likely to have a wandering eye, but perhaps that is just an old-fashioned stereotype. The psychologist David Buss has looked for the stereotype in the people most likely to refute it—men and women in elite liberal American universities a generation after the feminist revolution, in the heyday of politically correct sensibilities. The methods are refreshingly direct.

Confidential questionnaires asked a series of questions. How strongly are you seeking a spouse? The answers were on average identical for men and women. How strongly are you seeking a one-night stand? The women said, Not very strongly; the men said, Pretty strongly. How many sexual partners would you like to have in the next month? In the next two years? In your lifetime? Women said that in the next month eight-tenths of a sexual partner would be just about right. They wanted one in the next two years, and four or five over their lifetimes. Men wanted two sex partners within the month, eight in the next two years, and eighteen over their lifetimes. Would you consider having sex with a desirable partner that you had known for five years? For two years? For a month? For a week? Women said “probably yes” for a man they had known for a year or more, “neutral” for one they had known for six months, and “definitely not” for someone they had known a week or less. Men said “probably yes” as long as they had known the woman for a week. How short a time would a man have to know a woman before he would definitely not have sex with her? Buss never  found out; his scale did not go down past “one hour.” When Buss presented these findings at a university and explained them in terms of parental investment and sexual selection, a young woman raised her hand and said, “Professor Buss, I have a simpler explanation of your data.” Yes, he said, what is it? “Men are slime.”

Are men really slime, or are they just trying to look like slime? Perhaps in questionnaires men try to exaggerate their  studliness but women want to avoid looking easy. The psychologists R. D. Clark and Elaine Hatfield hired attractive men and women to approach strangers of the opposite sex on a college campus and say to them, “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you very attractive,” and then ask one of three questions: (a) “Would you go out with me tonight?”  (b) “Would you come over to my apartment tonight?” (c) “Would you go to bed with me tonight?” Half the women consented to a date. Half the men consented to a date. Six percent of the women consented to go to the stooge’s apartment. Sixty-nine percent of the men consented to go to the stooge’s apartment. None of the women consented to sex. Seventy-five percent of the men consented to sex. Of the remaining twenty-five percent, many were apologetic, asking for a rain check or explaining that they couldn’t because their fiancee was in town. The results have been  replicated in several states. When the studies were conducted, contraception was widely available and safe-sex practices were heavily publicized, so the results cannot be dismissed simply because women might be more cautious about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

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