these graphs tell a shocking story about the rampant college hookup culture

I’ve been making graphs again, because: science. And sex.

Wanna see?

For the last 15 years or so, The American College Health Association has been supporting colleges in collecting data about theirs students’ health behavior, in the form of the National College Health Assessment. The survey asks about everything from wearing a helment when you ride a bicycle to using a condom when you have anal sex, and the data are all publicly available in the form of executive reports (we can’t see the raw data, darn it).

So naturally, whenever people freak out about college health issues, I turn to the NCHA as the largest-scale long-term assessment of student health behaviors.

So.

Let’s talk about how many sex partners college students have.

Or rather, let’s not talk about it; instead, let’s look at a snapshot of it, over the last 15 years:

Percentage of college students who report having 0–1, 2–3, or 4 or more sex partners in the last 12 months, 2000–2015

Fifteen years of data, friends, tells us that about three-quarters of college students report either no sex partner — oral, vaginal, or anal —or just one sex partner in the last year.

And, on average, about 9% of college students report having 4 or more partners — oral, vaginal, or anal — in the last year.

There’s your scary, rampant hookup culture.

But we’re not done.

Because I know there are lots of questions left unanswered by this graph, I made a few more graphs. For example, maybe you’re thinking, But there’s probably a gender difference. And there is one… which I’ll get to in a minute. But only one.

I think it’s important to notice the ways that men and women are remarkably similar — like this:

Percentage of college men (black) versus women (green) reporting zero sex partners — oral, vaginal, or anal — in the last 12 months, 2000–2015

Three things to notice here:

(1) The number of students with zero sex partners has gone up a little bit — about 5 percentage points, or about 20%.

(2) It has gone up in the same way for men and women, and it has been not more than 2% different the whole time.

(3) — and maybe most importantly — A THIRD of college students report having NO SEX PARTNERS — oral, vaginal, or anal — in the last 12 months. That’s 1 IN 3. No sex partners. For the last year.

(Rampant hookup culture.)

But there was a gender difference that I think is worth noticing:

Here it is:

Percentage of college men (black) versus women (green) who report having 4 or more partners in the last 12 months

College men consistently reporting having more partners than women do — and the percentage has risen over the last fifteen years, for women, by a proportionately large amount. Even though it’s just 4 percentage points — from 5% to 9% — it’s about an 80% increase. That’s not nothing.

So when people have meltdowns about the college hookup culture, maybe what they’re noticing is that more women are reporting more sex partners? With a more detailed analysis I might be able to parse what proportion of that increase is oral, vaginal, or anal sex. Maybe I’ll do that next.

But in the meantime, when you hear people talking about college “hookup culture,” could you maybe mention that a third of college students — men and women — have had no sex partners in the last year, and 91% have had fewer than 4?

And that this has been true for at least the last 15 years?

Thank you for helping me make the world a more science-based, less moral-panic-based place for sex.


(SCIENCY FOOTNOTE: Please note that I changed the scale on each of the graphs. The first one shows 100%; the second 50%; and the third 25%. This was necessary to “zoom in” on behaviors that are lower frequency but highly noteworthy. For example, the 5% change in the final graph is almost impossible to see in the 100% scale.)


Emily Nagoski, Ph.D, is the author of Come As You Are, a transformational new book on women’s sexuality, is stirring up a lot of conversation about the myths and lies that we are all inundated with that concern female sexuality. Available now from Simon & Schuster.

Purchase Come As You Are from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local independent.

Emily’s currently scheduling her 2016–17 academic year speaking schedule. Check in with her here.