Study shows change in attitudes about sex at NKU

Current Northern Kentucky University students are having more sex than students 20 years ago, say surveys conducted by two psychology professors.

Dr. Paul Bishop and Dr. Angela Lipsitz completed their sixth survey in 20 years last week, questioning the sexual practices and perceptions of students on campus. The previous surveys show a rise in sexual activity and acceptance of premarital sex and contraception among students and parents alike since 1982, when the survey began. The survey polls 400 students between the ages of 18 to 24 in the introduction to psychology courses. Between 1982 to the last survey conducted in 1997, the results of the study show the number of women who reported to have had sex rose from 57 percent to 84 percent. The number of men having sex escalated from 63 percent to 75 percent, the study found.

Results from the most recent survey won’t be tabulated until fall, Bishop said. Bishop attributes the rise in sex to a more liberal attitude of society, in particular parents. The study showed over 20 percent less students felt their parents wanted them to be married or planning marriage before having sex. Society has become more liberal, Bishop said, and this culture change plays a big role in people’s behavior and beliefs.

“When you see the media coverage of spring break in Cancun, it is easy to see things are different,” Bishop said.

Most students actually feel their parents would support them and encourage them to practice safe sex, said Dr. Barbara Sween, director of Health and Counseling Services at NKU.

“They are seeing their parents as more for support,” Sween said.

There are very few students who are concerned with how their parents will react to their sex lives said Shirley Fledderjohn, R.N., a nurse for Health and Counseling Services, said. “I have only had one or two students coming in saying ‘I hope my parents don’t find out,” Fledderjohn said.

Also on the rise, according to the study, is the number of sexual partners people say they have had. Those who have had six or more partners went from 7 percent in 1982 to 20 percent in 1997 for the women, while the men went from 16 percent to 20 percent. Conversely, those having only one partner went down for the women, from 45 percent to 30 percent, and up for the men, from 24 percent to 32 percent.

Fledderjohn said most students she comes in contact with aren’t promiscuous, however, and many have had relatively few partners.

“I see more monogamy,” Fledderjohn said. “Before I started here, I assumed college students weren’t monogamous, but I think they are at a much higher percentage.”

While sex is on the rise, the study finds the use of birth control to be inconsistent. In the last study in 1997, 78 percent of the women and 64 percent of the men said they used condoms when they first had sex. For the last time they had sex, only 38 percent of the women and 55 percent of the men had used a condom.

People tend to become more careless with birth control in longer relationships, Lipsitz said.

“They make the assumption the condom isn’t necessary,” she said.

Sween agreed that many students don’t consistently use birth control, and she credits a lack of understanding in how the body works as a cause. Some don’t know how to use a condom, she said.

“”We quite frequently see students in our office who don’t have all the facts concerning how their body functions reproductively,” Sween said. “We can’t expect as a rule they are putting those bodies together in a clear fashion, and that leads to problems that bring them into this office.”

The recent survey added questions to see the effect of sex education on a person’s behavior. Lipsitz said she is interested in the influence of abstinence-only philosophies in schools and chastity pledges some schools encourage students to sign. Lipsitz said she believes that educating students about foregoing sex may have an initial effect, but doesn’t change a person’s behavior in the long run. There may be even some negative effects to abstinence-only education, she said. “People who only get abstinence-only messages and chastity pledges may not use condoms,” she said.

Twenty years ago, Bishop said he faced a similar question over whether the AIDS epidemic was convincing people to abstain from sex. He ultimately found sex to be on the rise.

“With AIDS, everyone said it must swing toward being more conservative, and people would be having less sex,” Bishop said. “We questioned whether that was true or not. It wasn’t.”

While the rise in sex is interesting, Bishop said he also finds it noteworthy that 20 percent of NKU students aren’t having sex.

“Even though we still have huge numbers, not everyone is having sex,” Bishop said.