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Sex on Campus

Sex! Sex! Sex! Is that all university students are thinking about? Apparently so, and doing it, according to the largest college sex survey since the 1953 Kinsey Report.
The results appear in a new book commissioned by the trendy men's magazine, Details, titled, Sex On Campus: The Naked Truth About the Real Sex Lives of College Students (Random House). The juiciest findings made their way into the publication's fifth annual "Sex Issue" in an article entitled, "Crazy Sexy School."
The results suggest the 1960s sexual revolution is continuing at a pace exhibiting a startling disregard for the dire warnings present in the era of AIDS. 80% of the respondents say they've had sex, have had an average of 6.4 partners, with over half making love at least once a week. Probably most surprising, and a turn around from the statid 50s, women are more sexually active than men with 36 percent having sex two to three times a week, while only 25 percent of males reporting this frequency.
Although such statistics and lurid titles are probably enough to make a parent yank their kids off of any campus other than Michigan's Aquinas College, co-authors Leland Elliot and Cynthia Brantly say they have published not just an informative look at youthful sexual attitudes and practices, but an informative how-to guide for everything from birth control to graphic details about performing sex acts.
The two authors devised, along with input from Random House and Details editors, a list of 150 multiple choice questions which were sent to 20,.000 college students from a national marketing database that included academic institutions, large and small, public and private, secular and religious. Although only nine percent (1,752 in all) returned the anonymous questionaires, Willard & Shulman, a Greewich, Conn. research firm, weighted the responses to reflect the student population as a whole.
"We were told this was a fantastic response," Brantley told the Metro Times, "particularly for this kind of survey."
The 28-year-old Brantley says the idea for the book came from a conversation she had with her co-author. "We were talking about some of the goofs we made in college and some of the things we didn't know and wish we had." She fears that although sexual activity is widespread today among students, "They're not doing it well or doing it wisely."
She cites her survey showing 55 percent of the respondents say they don't always have safe sex during intercourse and that it is rarely practiced during oral sex. Brant says the study showed little concern for the range of sexually transmitted diseases (STD) health professionals have gone to great lengths to warn people about.
"We tried to stress in the book," Brantley says, "HIV is just one of the many unpleasant things that can happen to you. The number one STD reported was genital warts which are highly contagious and very difficult to cure."
Apparently the college sex scene is a straight one. 92 percent of the students identified themselves as heterosexual, with a surprisingly low two percent choosing homosexuality as their sexual orientation, about 10 percent below the national adult level. However, strong tolerance or support was shown by the majority for gay or other alternative sexuality such as bisexuality. 77 percent either agreed, "It's a little weird, but whatever," echoing the quintessential 90s attitude, or its varient, "It's great; whatever turns you on." Still, over half of those listing themselves as homosexual said they had been "teased, harassed or attacked" because of their sexual identification.
Although the 6.4 average number of sex parents sounds high, 42 percent reported only having had one or two partners in their lives. "This seeming disparity is a result of the more active students throwing the curve," according to Brantley.
And, in a toss to old fashioned romance, a whopping 54 percent said love was the most important ingredient for a good sex life, with communication a close second. But even romance can often have a rushed and inconvenient setting. 70 percent said they had made love in a car, 65 percent outside, 28 percent in a public building, and, when the cat's away, 41 percent in their parent's bed.
"They want to be in love," Brantley concludes. "They're looking for relationships and within the context of this, they're having a lot of sex." She agrees there are problems with date and aquaintance rape and difficulties brought on by drugs and alcohol, but thinks mostly, "These are a wholesome bunch of kids."
Brantly and Elliott's findings are cheering for the advocates of sexual freedom, but how reliable are the statistics? For instance, is it possible that heterosexual, sexually active students over-responded and skewed the findings? Although the survey authors say they are satisfied with the number of students answering the questionaires, a local statistical analyist thinks otherwise. "Ten percent is not good," observes Michael Kruger of Databusters, a Detroit research design firm. "It's a low sample."
He says the survey results were taken at "face validity," whereas more research would have to be done to have supportable data. "With a low sample it's hard to conjecture who is responding and why," says Kruger. "Just the act of sending back the questionaire in this survey distinguishes a respondent from the other 90 percent who received it."
He suggests one way to validate the findings would be to do a random check of nine percent of the students who didn't respond and see if their answers were consistent with those who did. Follow-up interviews could also check the truthfulness of answers on a subject that, along with income, often receive less than honest replies.
Other factors alter responses to surveys including what pollsters call the "halo effect"the desire on the part of respondents to appear normal or to give answers they think the questioner wants. For instance, most men know it's proper to say love is what counts for a good sexual relationship, rather than come off like a clod who wants a "good body," to which only three percent admitted.
Others, including Brantley's fellow Generation Xer Katie Roiphe, author of Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at Century's End (Little Brown), outright doubt the lusty life portrayed by the campus survey. Roiphe thinks there has been a reaction against the sexual revolution creating a new conservative morality and a limiting of sexual expression.
Contrary to the campus sex findings, Roiphe sees a resurgent puritanism characterized by obsession with "safety," resulting in abstinence, monogamy, and even so-called "secondary virginity" (you did it before, but not again until marriage). She says, "Young people are searching for moral order in a chaotic and ambivalent sexual climate."
Although AIDS has not spread as predicted through drug-free, middle-class Americans, Roiphe feels the country was poised for a sexual backlash after a wild, carnal ride through the 60s and 70s. "The turn in morality, the sexual counter-revolution, started before AIDS," she argues. She points to the language in early 1980s articles about herpes heralding the end of the sexual revolution in the exact language used several years later when HIV epidemic arrived. "It's a very puritanical American concept," according to Roiphe, "that one moment of pleasure will create a lifetime of remorse, or now with AIDS, a direct link between sex and death."
She thinks fear of the epidemic serves a purpose beyond health precautions. "Out of this anxiety about disease we've created a new moral system which creates limits in an otherwise limitless world," she says. "It's part of a desire to go back to a less complicated time."
Roiphe, who lectures extensively on college campuses, says students seem to be grasping for someone to tell them how to lead their personal life. She points to the popularity of the 50s mentality, How-To-Trap-A-Guy book, The Rules, as an indication of a larger quest for more structure in life. "The whole idea that you can sleep with whoever you want, do whatever you want, with no taboos, and no limits but your own desires," she says, "is quite terrifying to many young people."
Roiphe admits part of her has sympathy with hedonism and recklessness, "Particularly," she says, "when I hear fear and caution and absolute conservatism from the mouth of a 16-year-old." But she says, "Total promiscuity has its costs, so we need to find some middle-ground. The totally permissive society puts too much of a burden on the individual to create meaning for themselves."
Roiphe doesn't downplay the dangers of AIDS and other STDs, but thinks its sad that young people have been "over-terrified" about the threat of disease. For instance, she bristles at the substitution by some of "safer-sex" for the more commonly used term. "For young people, sex has become a matter of risk and caution," she laments. "The terms in which they think of their first kiss has been transformed dramatically from what it was a generation or two ago."

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Last modified: October 21, 1997