Valentine’s Day is upon us, and one can’t help but wonder how many of us are actually going to have sex tonight. There are plenty of narratives to choose from: Fox News says we’re locked in the grip of a licentious and dangerous hookup culture, but Trojan Condoms congratulates us on being the most sexually healthy campus in the United States. Rumors of public sex in the stacks imply a student body entirely free of social limitation, but are directly contradicted by the shocking number of people in Butler in the first place. On the Internet and TV, college is sold as four years of freewheeling experimentation—an endless orgy of young and beautiful people having lots of young and beautiful sex. But this turns out not to be the case, and not just because most of us are rather plain. Despite the University’s very thorough safe-sex programs, Columbia students are almost certainly having sex less often than they think they do, less often than their non-student peers do, and less often than their parents did. We can and should work together to reverse this tragic backslide.
Let’s look at some statistics. It’s very hard to say much about Columbia’s sex life in particular—the only recent data comes from online polls intended more for humor than edification (Bwog, for example, reports that only 23 percent of Columbians will have “My bf/gf <3” as their Valentine). There are, however, a number of studies on American sex life in general. Go Ask Alice! and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helpfully compile a lot of this data—Alice! with a focus on relevance to the Columbia student body, the CDC from a more statistical STD-prevention angle. Using these broader measures, it is possible to get a rough idea what Columbia students are up to.
In response to a question about this topic, Alice! is quick to point out that college students often greatly overestimate the amount of sex going on around them. They cite a study by Scholly et al. which showed “that while 80 percent of students had zero or one sexual partner during the preceding year, only 22 percent of those students believed their fellow students had one or fewer partners.” Alice! also emphasizes the problems with collecting statistics on sexual behavior, summing up with, “Plenty of people are talking about doing it, but you can’t prove that they actually did anything. And, for a host of reasons, far fewer people are talking about not doing it.” So, with those significant grains of salt, the data Alice! provides suggests that: 1) On any given day, approximately 60 percent of college students haven’t had sex for a month, and 2) The vast majority of college students have had one or no partners in the last year.
CDC data from its Vital and Health Statistics survey in 2010 and the National Health Statistics Report in 2011 is helpful because it has a large sample size and is broken down very finely along lines like race, gender, age, and parents’ sexual and marital history. The CDC’s conclusions suggest a number of demographic variables that correlate with increased age of virginity loss and decreased sexual activity, including a two-parent home, an older mother, a higher parental income, and race (white and Asian respondents are less active than African-American and non-white Hispanic respondents). Perhaps because America’s college student body skews disproportionately toward these groups, perhaps because college itself has a dampening effect, college students were about 20 to 30 percent less likely than their non-college peers to have had sex within the last three months, and female college students were more than five times as likely to be virgins on their 22nd birthdays. So not only are college students having less sex than we think we are, we’re also doing worse than others in our generation. Columbia showers us with free condoms, private dorm rooms, and cheap morning-after pills—things those not in college might have a hard time obtaining—but most don’t seem to be taking advantage.
Another striking feature of the CDC data is the significant decline in sex among young people. Though the trend might have methodological roots, CDC surveys suggest that the number of sexually active college students has declined roughly 15 percent in the last two decades. This trend has no definitive explanation (rising awareness or fear of STDs, changing relationships between the sexes, and increasing lifespan have all been suggested), but I find it quite disturbing. I’d like to think that our social mores have been advancing steadily since the dark days of the Victorian era, marching ever onward toward the total sexual liberation imagined by the utopian science fiction authors I love to read. Sadly, reality disagrees.
So, if you were wondering how much sex was going to be had on this most romantic of days, here’s your answer: not much. Not as much as is happening outside our gates, not as much as was happening a few decades ago. College may do a great job educating bankers and consultants, but it seems to fail when cultivating lovers. At Columbia at least, the college is doing all it can to foster healthy sex. Now we have to do our part. Go forth and fuck.
Alex Collazo is a Columbia College junior majoring in creative writing and economics-philosophy. He is the treasurer of CIRCA and a former Spectator head copy editor. I'm Just Saying runs alternate Tuesdays.