Q & A with Author

sandy caron pic 2012Q&A with Author Dr. Sandra L. Caron

Why survey college students?

I started surveying the students in Human Sexuality in 1990. I incorporate survey results throughout the semester in discussions on a variety of topics. “The Sex Lives of College Students: Three Decades of Attitudes and Behaviors” presents the results gained from 6,654 college students between ages 18-22 over the past 30 years (from 1990 to 2020).

Attitudes and observations are important because they inform how we learn and what we learn. Social scientists tell us that while our nation has diverse tastes and freedoms regarding sexuality, our nation is still queasy about exploring sexual attitudes and behaviors even when it’s essential to maintaining and protecting public health. For many students, college is not only about learning academically, it’s about learning socially.

Where did the questions come from?

Many questions originated from a 1970s/1980s survey administered by world-renowned Syracuse University sexuality educator Dr. Sol Gordon. Sol was my mentor and advisor for my doctorate in human sexuality. He encouraged me to distribute the survey in my own human sexuality classes at the University of Maine. As the technology and times changed, the survey has evolved to account for societal changes.

In 2010, several new questions were added and refined to address the latest issues and trends, including the use of social media to facilitate relationships and use of morning-after pills.

What is the Human Sexuality course?

The undergraduate class has a capacity enrollment of 350 students and regular waiting lists. It is a three credit course that uses lectures, music, videos, and guest speakers to covers broad areas of human sexuality: the social aspects of sexuality as it develops within the individual and within relationships; the process of sexuality education; and those aspects of sexual behavior representing alternatives to conventional sexual behavior.

And while many of the students enrolled in the human sexuality course are majoring in the social sciences, the students represent every college and major at the university. Many take the popular class as an elective to “unlearn what they’ve learned.” For all, the academically rigorous class is also a personal journey, helping them learn how to be comfortable talking about sex and their sexuality.

Human sexuality is a complex area of study that focuses on such topics as sexual anatomy and responses, sexual feelings and behaviors, intimate relationships, sexual identity and desires, sexual health and well-being, and how we perceive and express our individual sexual selves. The course is designed to present the latest research on various issues, to critically evaluate the vast amount of sexual information that surrounds them, as well as to help students make more informed decisions in their own life.

What are the questions in the survey used for?

Throughout the semester, I use the questions from the survey to:

  • Raise awareness of what their peers are doing and to showcase what is reality versus what we’re conditioned to believe based on our media consumption.
  • Compare our class to other studies they will be reading and learning about.
  • As a teaching tool as we discuss how sex research is conducted. We discuss issues such as sampling, wording, and truthfulness. Surveys, like the one I administer, have an advantage if they are completed anonymously, since the respondent is free from embarrassment.
  • Begin the lecture on sexuality research. How do we know what we know about sexuality?  “Through direct observation with informed consent.” We have our own experiences of course, but our experiences are subjective and limited and may not provide insight into others or, at times, even into ourselves.  The social sciences, however, attempt to study objectively.
  • Showcase a unique data set. While it may not be perfect, it is an effort to provide accurate data. It involves one campus and allows direct comparison of attitudes and behaviors over time.

Why write a book?

“The Sex Lives of College Students” raises awareness, addresses the issues surrounding sex and sexuality, and provides perspective on the trends through the past three decades in the sex lives of college students.

The survey data serve as a reality check on the sex lives of college students. Despite the perception that all college students are regularly hooking up, their survey responses indicate that, overall, they are neither feeling overly liberated sexually nor jumping into bed with multiple partners. Instead, the survey shows a range of opinions and experience in sexual relationships.

What will the public want to note when they read the research?

At the same time that these college students have been raised with the “just say no” abstinence-only message, they have been surrounded by the “just say yes” influence of living in a highly sexualized society. The availability and exposure to adult-oriented sexually explicit material (e.g., pornography) is just a mouse click away.

So much of their sex education has been left to chance, uneducated peers and the Internet, resulting in many young people having unrealistic expectations of sex and arriving at college with many misconceptions.

The survey findings reveal that some college students today are simply performing sex. Without the proper guidance of their parents and schools, many young people have been misled by the acting world of pornography, which is designed to be stimulating fantasy for adults. Somewhere along the line, we forgot to tell our young people that it is not intended to be sex instruction. But for too many young people, it serves as their primary foundation for sexuality education.

So what does the survey really show?

These results confirm that college is a learning experience. Students are on a journey to learn not only about a specific career, but to learn and discover more about themselves. Students are exposed to new ideas and a diversity of people with different values and experiences. As the survey results indicate, students become more accepting of others and the range of behaviors. And although most arrive at college having already experienced sexual intercourse, the results indicate that they are engaging in a variety of sexual activities that increase with each year they are enrolled. We as educators, neighbors, and guardians have a responsibility to prepare them so that they can make informed choices.

College is a time to explore and for many it is likely to be their first chance to explore sexuality more openly without parents. College-aged students begin to form their own beliefs and own values and experiment with sexuality.  For instance, of the 5,811 college students who reported they have had sex, 87% had their first experience by age 18. In fact, many report they had their first sexual experience by age 16 or 17.

Through the results of this study, we note that some things changed, while some things stayed the same.

What were the biggest surprises for you in the 30-year data?

Among the most telling disparities between perceptions and reality: the question about faking orgasms. Despite the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s and what appears to be more openness than ever before concerning relationships, the 30 years of data found that a quarter of men and two-thirds of women say they have faked orgasms and that number has gone up — not down — over the past three decades. Those numbers tell us that we’ve lost touch with what sexual relationships are supposed to be about — enjoying ourselves rather than faking pleasure and satisfaction.

Similarly, the lower number of women who said they masturbate (only two-thirds of women compared to nearly 100 percent of men) speaks to the failure to know ourselves and what turns us on. And without that self-knowledge, how can we tell a partner what feels good/what we prefer?

Those survey responses tell us we still have a long way to go before people own their sexuality. The survey reinforces the fact that young adults are generally comfortable pursuing sexual relationships but often fail to openly discuss sexual issues. What’s needed is the confidence of sexual partners to engage in honest conversations about what pleasures them most. Some of the results suggest that the double standard is alive and well when we see that college men are more likely to inflate the number of sex partners they have had, while more women under-report; and college women are much more likely to say love is important in sex, while many men say love is not important at all.

The survey also shows progress in a number of areas, including greater acceptance of sexual diversity and awareness of the importance of safer sex and sexual responsibility, which has resulted in lower numbers of STIs and abortions.

What should we take away from this survey?

This survey was designed to give us a glimpse into the lives of college students. We can begin to help by understanding their attitudes and behaviors past and present — where they have been and where they are now.

We need more honest discussions about the role of sexuality in people’s lives.

I hope that “The Sex Lives of College Students” can start that dialogue.

We need more public discussions of private parts.

What is the student response to this data?

Surprise and relief!

Surprise since they are surrounded by media messages that portray a fantasy version of sex and relationships – compounded by how they think things should be.

Relief comes from knowing that somewhere in the findings they can see they are not alone.

The sex survey results help students by providing a framework within which to evaluate their own sexual behavior. Knowing others are experiencing the same things as they are often results in comfort.

The survey results are shared with the class to demonstrate the value of sex research and to serve as a springboard for discussions. The students can compare themselves to other studies of college sexual attitudes and behaviors, as well as to results from previous students completing the survey. Above all, the findings raise awareness about students’ understanding of sex matters (despite an image of college life involving sex every weekend, half the respondents say they have gone a few months without sex) and difficult issues (nearly a third of the students surveyed responded that they have had an involuntary sexual experience, and more than half the students know someone who had been raped).

In many cases, the survey data help students let go of “bedtime fables” — “bigger is better” and the misconception that everyone knows the secrets to sex. The latter is particularly detrimental when men and women find themselves disappointed in their relationships when their sexual partners fail to satisfy them.

What are the biggest misconceptions addressed by the survey?

In this Internet age, young adults believe they are informed and free of the guilt and hang ups of their parents’ generations. However, most college students have many questions regarding sex. While some know how to proactively get accurate answers to their questions, or had good sex education classes in high school or parents who had open, honest communication about sex, many more college students seem to have a “junior high mentality” when it comes to sexuality. In fact, they may not know much more than what they received in a middle school class on puberty.

With today’s technology, there’s a sea of accessible half-truths and misinformation about sex. The trick is to find accurate information that heightens awareness, informs decision-making and promotes healthy lifestyles and well-being.

What does the survey say about love, sex and relationships today?

We are sex saturated and sex silent. We are more interested in the morality than the reality of sex. Too many people in this country think withholding information and access to services will lead to responsible behavior. As other countries have shown so clearly — Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, The Netherlands and Sweden, to name a few — this is not true and does not work. We need to begin by educating.

We teach the 3 R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) in school. I feel there should be a 4th R:  relationships. For the most part, that’s what sexuality education is all about! We need to help college students learn what it means to create an intimate relationship, rather than using sex as a way to avoid intimacy. We need to help them shift from the performance model to one based in pleasure and connection.

Instead of judging sex by the number of orgasms, help them judge it by how much pleasure has been created. Instead of asking,  “How am I doing?” we need to help college students ask, “Am I enjoying myself?” and “Are we enjoying each other?”

How has HIV & safer sex evolved in student’s opinions?

We have made progress with greater condom use and less likely to guess if a partner is infected. We see this reflected in fewer STIs. However, the further we have moved from the time when HIV first became an issue in the 1980s and early 1990s, the less concern there seems to be.

For example, almost no one (1%) was “not concerned” about HIV in the early 1990s, and today nearly 20% say they are “not concerned” – and in more recent years we are starting to see greater risk taking – decline in discussing using a condom or refusing sex if there is no condom.

Making love or having sex: What’s the difference?

For most people, love and sex are closely linked. That is, unless you’re a college student.  Just 56% of college students say being in love is important. Love might be endangered, but it is not extinct. However, the term “making love” is less likely to be used by today’s college students to describe this activity.

The differences in responses by college women and men reveal that when it comes to some things with sex, the double standard is alive and well. Many more college women (62%) feel love is important in a sexual relationship, whereas far fewer college men (42%) feel the same way. Conversely, a quarter of college men (27%) say being in love is not important when it comes to sex (and perhaps not even knowing his partner’s name?), whereas only 14% of women say this. For many college students today (men especially), sex is not seen as something special you do with someone special.

In the past 30 years, being in love as an important component of sex has fallen sharply from about 70% in the early 1990s to now less than half of college students seeing it as important. Over time, love has taken a backseat in the sexual relationships of college students. Sex has become detached from love.

Sex education or sex mis-education?

Many of today’s entering college students have not been educated in a critical area of their lives — the sexual part. What “sex education” they might have received has too often been too little, too late — and too biological. Since the 1990s, our country has spent nearly $2 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage “education” instead of focusing on providing healthy, comprehensive sexuality education. (I am for “just say no,” as long as it is spelled K-N-O-W.)

Along with the push for abstinence-only education in the past three decades came the rise in virginity pledges and virginity balls with their specific focus on girls’ virginity — not boys’. It is hard to understand how we reached the point where we judge a girl’s character by what is between her legs more than what is between her ears and in her heart. It is an indication the sexual double standard is still alive and well.

The survey results suggest this double standard as well when we see such results across 30 years revealing:

  • A college woman is more likely to say she has had fewer partners, while a man is more likely to say he have been with a higher number (slut vs. stud).
  • If virginity matters, she is more likely to say she wants a partner who is experienced; he is more likely to say he wants a virgin.
  • In terms of the importance of love and sex, she is more likely to say love is important; he is not. (What is important to him is if he is attracted.)
  • A college woman is more likely to believe her parents would be opposed to the idea of her having sex, while a college man is more likely to think his parents (especially dad) would be in favor of it.

From your perspective, what’s the take-home message?

College students have lots of questions around sex and, depending on the quality — and sources — of the sex education they received in their younger years, some may even have some “unlearning” to do. College is such a critical time for young people making decisions about relationships. It is a time of new beginnings, changes and discoveries. It is an opportunity to be informed and be more comfortable with their bodies.

As our future leaders, it’s important for them — and those who care about them — to understand and help them “own” their sexuality as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Without information, including the correct information, too many young adults end up having inflated expectations and engaging in sexual acts with little meaning. They wind up thinking that good sex is about how one looks and performs. As reflected in the media, young people live in a sex saturated but sex silent society in which there is not enough informed dialogue. The hope is that “The Sex Lives of College Students” can jump-start the dialogue.

Where do we go from here?

We need to focus more on real sex (the reality of what is happening in people’s lives) versus reel sex (the image of what is supposedly going on via what is fed to us through the media).

This survey was designed to give us a glimpse into the lives of college students. We can begin to help by understanding their attitudes and behaviors past and present — where they have been and where they are now.

We need more honest discussions about the role of sexuality in people’s lives.