Differences in Sexual Risk Behaviors Among College Students

An article in the December issue of the Archives of Sexual Behavior compares the sexual health behaviors of students who have had same-sex sexual experiences and those who have had exclusively heterosexual experiences.

The goal of this research was to determine if either group engages in higher risk sexual behavior and to provide information to sexual health educators on appropriate priorities for educational programs tailored to particular groups of students.

Data were gathered as part of the 1997 College Alcohol Study, which surveyed a random sample of students at 116 American colleges and universities. A 20-page questionnaire was mailed to each participant, letting the participants know that response was voluntary and anonymous. Participation was encouraged by a cash incentive.

Four items regarding sexual behavior were included in the College Alcohol Study and in these analyses: "Have you ever had sexual intercourse (with an opposite or same-sex partner)?" "If you have ever been sexually active, has it been with: (a) an opposite-sex partner(s), (b) a same-sex partner(s), or (c) both opposite- and same-sex partners?" "How many people have you had sexual intercourse with in the past 30 days?" and "When you have sexual intercourse, how often do you or your partner use a condom?"



  • 24,140 participants were initially contacted via questionnaire, with 14,521 responding.

Participants attended 116 American universities and colleges within 39 states; 22%, Northeastern; 29%, Southern; 29%, North Central; and 19%, Western.

  • Over 80% of the participants were traditional college age (18-22), 79% were White (non-Hispanic), and half lived off-campus.

  • Analysis was done separately for males and females.

  • Married participants were excluded from the analysis. In addition, females reporting exclusively having sexual relations with females were excluded from the condom analyses.

  • Responses from 3,520 males and 5,138 females were ultimately analyzed, with 5,046 females in the condom analyses.


Sexual Behaviors

  • 71% of college students reported being sexually experienced.

  • 95% of students reported their sexual experiences have been exclusively with opposite-sex partners, 3% reported sexual experiences with members of both sexes, and 2% reported sexual experiences only with members of the same-sex.

  • Students reporting same-sex sexual behavior were more likely to be older than those with only opposite-sex sexual partners.

    • Among men, 39% of those reporting both-sex sexual partners and 35% of those reporting same-sex sexual partners were 23 years of age or older, compared to 23% of men with only opposite-sex sexual experience.

    • Among women, 34% of those reporting both-sex sexual partners and 27% of those reporting same-sex sexual partners were 23 years of age or older, compared to 16% of women with only opposite-sex sexual experience.

  • Students reporting exclusively same-sex sexual behavior were more likely to be non-White than those with opposite-sex or both-sex sexual partners, especially among men.

Multiple Partners

  • 64% of participants reported a single sexual partner in the past 30 days and an additional 30% reported no sexual partners in that period.

  • 20% of men with only same-sex sexual experience reported having two or more sexual partners in the 30 days proceeding the survey, compared to 16% of men with both-sex sexual experience, and 9% of men with only opposite-sex sexual partners.

  • 11% of women with both-sex sexual experience reported having two or more sexual partners in the 30 days preceding the survey compared to 5% of women with only same-sex sexual partners and 5% of women with only opposite-sex sexual partners.

Condom Use

  • 43% of students reported always using condoms during sexual intercourse, and 24% reported never using condoms.

  • 81% of men and 87% of women who reported always using condoms were under 23 years of age.

  • 48% of men and 51% of women who reported always using condoms lived on-campus.

  • Among women, the percentage with opposite-sex and both-sex partners reporting consistent condom use was virtually identical at 41%.

  • Male respondents who reported two or more recent sexual partners were less likely to report always using condoms than men who did not have multiple recent partners.

This analysis identified differences in sexual health practices between college students with same-sex partners and college students with opposite-sex partners. In particular, female students reporting both-sex partners and male students with both-sex and same-sex partners were more likely to report multiple sexual partners than those students who only had opposite-sex partners.

Overall, rates of consistent condom use found in this sample were somewhat higher than those found previously in large studies of United States college students. The difference could be due to a genuine increase in the rates of condom use during the few years between this and prior studies, or it could also be due in part to the exclusion of married students from this analysis. Men with exclusively same-sex partners were less likely to report consistent condom use. While this difference was not statistically significant, the authors suggest that it may reflect changed perceived threat of HIV and AIDS within the gay male community, or it may reflect a shortcoming in safer-sex promotion for gay college students.

In addition, among men in this study, those with more partners tended to report less consistent condom use -- a combination that puts them and their partners at substantial risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

The authors recommend several strategies to improve sexual risk behaviors among college students. First, messages about the importance of condom use, condom promotion, and condom distribution may need to be renewed for all students, in particular for males with same-sex partners. Second, sexual health education programs need to emphasize the importance of minimizing one’s number of sexual partners as a risk-prevention strategy. A focus on lifetime partner minimization is also critical given the fact that most college students are not reliable condom users.

They conclude by suggesting that because much of the HIV/AIDS prevention intervention work now specifically targets audiences defined by behaviors (e.g., "men who have sex with men"), research based on experiences rather than self-identification as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is particularly important.

For more information: M. Eisenberg, "Differences in Sexual Risk Behaviors Between College Students With Same-Sex and Opposite-Sex Experience: Results from a National Survey," Archives of Sexual Behavior_, December, 2001, vol.30, no. 6, pp. 575-89._