College Student Attitudes Toward Sexual Intimacy

College Student Attitudes Toward Sexual Intimacy – Statistical Data Included

David Knox

Ninety-nine undergraduates at a large southeastern university completed a confidential survey about their attitudes toward sexual intimacy. Among other findings, men were significantly more likely than women to report that they were willing to have intercourse with someone they had known for three hours, to have intercourse with two different people within a six hour period, to have intercourse with someone they did not love, and to have intercourse with someone with whom they did not have a good relationship. Sociobiological explanations of parental investment are suggested for these gender differences and implications for university faculty, counselors and students are identified.

“Look inside a college student’s head and you’ll find six parts sex, three parts alcohol/drugs, and one part academics” lamented one university professor we know. This pessimistic and disgruntled estimate reflects the belief that college students are preoccupied with sex. While genital sex is often presumed to be the referent of the term “sex,” this study focused on sexual intimacy- the conditions under which individuals are willing to have intercourse with someone and their definition of the term sexual intimacy.

Sexual intimacy has been the subject of numerous studies including its liberalization on campus (Sherwin and Corbett, 1985), its value as an antidote to infidelity (Shaw, 1997), and its use in the treatment of maladies from multiple sclerosis (Speziale, 1997) to chronic back pain (Schlesinger, 1996). Only Gilmore et al. (1996) studied the meaning of sex and its complexity, but their sample focused on black inner city adolescents, not college students.

Sample and Methods

Data for the present study consisted of ninety-nine never married undergraduates at a large southeastern university who voluntarily completed an anonymous twenty item questionnaire designed to assess the respondents’ conditions for having intercourse and their definitions of sexual intimacy. Among the respondents, 79% were women; 21% were men. The median age was 19. Respondents were predominately white (82%) and African-American (15%) with 1% Hispanic and 2% “other”. Fifty-three percent were emotionally involved with a partner while forty-four percent were either not dating or casually dating. Respondents were involved with their partner for an average of one year (12 months) with a range of from one month to six years and four months (76 months).

Findings & Discussion

Analysis of the data revealed some significant differences.

1. Sex differences in attitudes toward sexual intimacy. Men were significantly (p [is less than]. 01) more likely than women to report that they were willing to have intercourse with someone they had known for three hours, to have intercourse with two different people within a six hour period, to have intercourse with someone they did not love, and to have intercourse with someone with whom they did not have a good relationship. Previous researchers using national samples have documented that men are more hedonistic than women in their willingness to have intercourse devoid of relationship considerations (Michael et al., 1994). Researchers using smaller non representative samples have reached similar conclusions. Townsend and Levy (1990) studied 382 respondents and found that men decide on the basis of physical attractiveness alone whether they want to have intercourse with a particular person. In contrast, women consider a number of factors in making a decision to have intercourse including affection (“Does he love me?), commitment (“Is he interested in a continued relationship with me?”), and socioeconomic resources (“Does he have money?”).

Sociobiologists have emphasized that women decide to have intercourse with a man in terms of his potential for investing in her subsequent offspring and are more likely to have sex with men who demonstrate such investment (Ellis and Symons, 1990). Pepper and Weiss (1987) and Motley and Reeder (1995) demonstrated that women limit and slow the movement toward increasing levels of sexual intimacy in a relationship so as to give them time to assess the man’s parental investment potential. Traditionally, women have been socialized to be more concerned about the relationship context (commitment and security) as a condition for sexual expression than men. Similarly, men have traditionally been more sexually aggressive and pleasure focused independent of the relationship context.

2. Relationship differences in attitudes toward sexual intimacy. Respondents who were dating different people were significantly (p [is less than] .04) more likely than persons involved in a relationship to be willing to have intercourse without being in love and to have intercourse with someone with whom they did not have a good relationship. Previous research supports the notion that involvement in a relationship is associated with movement away from hedonistic sexual values (Knox et al., in press). Michael et al. (1994) also found that individuals who reported having sex with two or more partners in the past 12 months were twice as likely to have a hedonistic (recreational) view of sex as individuals who reported having only one partner in the last year.

In addition to identifying that significant gender and relationship differences are associated with the conditions under which our respondents expressed a willingness to have intercourse, we conducted a content analysis of the respective definitions of sexual intimacy provided by women and men and developed a summary profile of their respective definitions. According to the male students surveyed, sexual intimacy was “sexual activity of any kind-particularly sexual intercourse and oral sex.”

In contrast, according to the female students surveyed, sexual intimacy was “any kind of sexual activity with one person with whom there is mutual emotional involvement.” The definition provided by women also included more than just sexual intercourse; it included touching, foreplay, and being close to that special person in a sexual way, particularly intercourse and oral sex.

Summary and Implications

This study confirmed previous research that men and persons not involved in a relationship, in contrast to women and persons involved in a relationship, are more likely to approve of intercourse devoid of relationship considerations. Similarly, men tend to define sexual intimacy as sexual activity of any kind while women regard sexual intimacy in terms of its emotional, commitment, relationship connotations. Sociobiological differences in regard to concern for parental investment between men and women was suggested as the theoretical explanation for these differences.

University faculty and counselors might be reminded that women and men approach involvement in sex from very different points of view and to emphasize to students not to assume that their view is shared by the other sex. Indeed, the adage that women see sex as an expression of love and men see sex as sex seems to be a legacy we carry into the new millennium.


Gilmore, S., J. DeLamater, and D. Wagstaff. (1996) Sexual decision making by inner city black adolescent males: A focus group study. Journal of Sex Research. 33:363-371

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Knox, D., M. E. Zusman, and C. Cooper (in press) Sexual values of college students. College Student Journal

Michael, R. T., J. H. Gagnon E. O. Laumann, and G. Kolata. (1994) Sex in America Boston: Little, Brown.

Motley, M. T. and H. M. Reeder. (1995) Unwanted escalation of sexual intimacy: Male and female perceptions of connotations and relational consequences of resistance messages. Communication Monographs. 62:355-382

Pepper,, T. and D. L. Weis. (1987) Proceptive and rejective strategies of U.S. and Canadian college women. Journal of Sex Research. 23: 455-480

Schlesinger, L. (1996) Chronic pain, intimacy, and sexuality: A qualitative study of women who live with pain. Journal of Sex Research. 33: 249-256

Shaw, J. (1997) Treatment rationale for Internet infidelity. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy. 22: 29-34.

Sherwin, R. and S. Corbett. (1985) Campus sexual norms and dating relationships: A trend analysis. Journal of Sex Research. 21: 258-274.

Speziale, B. (1997) Couples, sexual intimacy, and multiple sclerosis. Journal of Family Psychotherapy. 8: 13-32.

Townsend, J. M. and G. D. Levy. (1990) Effects of potential partners’ physical attractiveness and socioeconomic status on sexuality and partner selection. Archives of Sexual Behavior. 19: 149-164



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