University student beliefs about sex: men vs. women

David Knox

Analysis of survey data from 326 undergraduates at a large southeastern university revealed significant differences between men and women in their sexual beliefs. Specifically, men were more likely to think that oral sex is not sex; that cybersex is not cheating, that men can’t tell if a woman is faking orgasm and that sex frequency drops in marriage. Meanwhile, women tended to believe that oral sex is sex, that cybersex is cheating, that faking orgasm does occur and that sex frequency stays high in marriage. Little wonder there is frustration and disappointment between men and men as they include sexuality into their relationship. Implications and limitations of the data are suggested.


That men view sex differently from women is well established in US culture. Bill Clinton revealed this difference when he said, “Because I could” in answer to why he became sexually involved with Monica Lewinski. Her reaction to his answer was outrage. She reported that their relationship had meaning beyond stains on a dress and that Clinton had emotional feelings for her. This example illustrates that men and women sometimes view sexuality differently. How extensive is this difference?

That men and women differ in sexual behavior is well established in the literature. In national data, based on interviews with 3,432 adults, men reported thinking about sex more often than women (54% vs. 19% respectively reported thinking about sex several times a day), having more sexual partners than women (5% vs. 2% respectively reported having had five or more sexual partners in the last year), and having orgasm during intercourse more often than women (75% vs. 29%) (Michael et al., 1994, 102, 128, 156). In regard to sexual values, O’Reilly et al. (2006) found that undergraduate men were three times more hedonistic (35% vs. 13%) than women. The current study sought to identify how men and women differed in their views of various sexual beliefs.

Data and Analysis

The data consisted of 326 undergraduates enrolled at a large southeastern university who voluntarily completed an anonymous 74 item questionnaire designed to assess beliefs about men, women, relationships and sexuality. This study focused on gender differences in beliefs held by university students about sexuality.

Among the 326 respondents, 30% were men; 70% were women. The median age was 19 with a range of 17 to 58. Racial identification included 83.1% white, 12.6% African-American, and 4.3% who self identified as “other.” A typical profile of the respondents is that they were experienced in dating (had been in an average of 2 serious relationships) and currently dating an average of three times a month (usually the same person).

Data analysis consisted of recoding Likert responses (1 = Strongly Disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = Neither agree nor disagree, 4 = Agree and 5 = Strongly Agree) to disagree/agree categories and assessing male/female differences in common beliefs about sex. These beliefs included “Oral sex is not sex” and “Cybersex is not considered cheating on your partner.” Responses were cross-classified with sex of respondent and assessed for significance using chi-square.

Findings and Discussion

Scoring a 1 on the Likert scale reflected strong disagreement and scoring a 5 reflected strong agreement. Following each belief, we will present the respective scores of the men and women respondents and the significance level of the difference.

1. Oral sex is not sex. Women scored 2.13: men scored a 2.6 (the higher the score the greater the belief that oral sex is not sex).

US youth culture tends to believe that oral sex is not sex and studies support this view. In a study of 164 Canadian heterosexual students, less than 25% considered oral genital behavior to be having sex. However, 97% of these respondents considered a partner who had oral sex with someone else to be unfaithful (Randall and Byers, 2003). Hence, having oral sex is not sex but if one’s partner has oral sex with someone else, it is infidelity. What appears to be happening is that definitions of oral sex shift depending on the context and consequences. For example, if Mary has oral sex with Bob she isn’t “really” having sex which allows her to view herself as a virgin. But if Bob has oral sex with Sally, Mary will view his doing so as sexual infidelity which threatens their relationship.

In regard to the present study, men were significantly (p<. 002) more likely to believe that oral sex is not sex. These data reflect the Clinton perspective that "I did not have sexual relations with that woman- Miss Lewinski" even though she had performed fellatio on him. Hence, men have been socialized to focus on orgasm during intercourse as sex whereas other sexual acts may be viewed as foreplay.

The issue of whether oral sex is sex is also being played out in high school by adolescents. In a study of 580 ninth graders in two California high schools, almost 20% (19.6%) reported having had oral sex (13.5% had had sexual intercourse). The adolescents (mean age 14.5) not only evaluated oral sex as significantly less risky than vaginal sex on health, social, and emotional consequences, but also believed that oral sex was more acceptable than vaginal sex for adolescents their own age in both dating and nondating situations. In effect, they saw oral sex as less of a threat to their values and beliefs (Halpern-Felsher, Cornell, Kropp, & Tschann, 2005).

Interviews with high school juniors and seniors also revealed that while intercourse is reserved for a special partner, oral sex requires few emotional ties (Remez, 2000). A sexuality educator at The Park School in Baltimore, Deborah Roffman, explained that “middle-school gifts sometimes look at oral sex as an absolute bargain–you don’t get pregnant, they think you don’t get diseases, you’re still a virgin and you’re in control since it’s something that they can do to boys (whereas sex is almost always described as something boys do to girls)” (Remez, 2000, p. 299). But this sense of control is illusory if the girl is pressured into performing fellatio “to make boys happy,” or using it as a way to gain popularity, or doing it when alcohol is involved (Remez, 2000).

2. Cyber sex is not cheating on your partner. Women scored 2.05; men scored a 2.77 (the higher the score the greater the belief that cyber sex is not cheating).

While both sexes were more likely to believe that cyber sex is cheating, men were significantly (p<. 001) less likely to agree that cyber sex is cheating. In effect, women see cyber sex as cheating more than men do. Some data suggest that women have paid a heavy price for their partner's cyber sex behavior. Schneider (2003) studied ninety-one women who had experienced serious adverse consequences from their partner's cyber sex involvement, including loss of interest in relational sex, feeling hurt, betrayed, rejected, abandoned, lonely, jealous, and angry over being constantly lied to. These women noted that the cyber affair was as emotionally painful as an off-line affair and that the cyber sex addiction of their partners was a major reason for their separation or divorce. Cooper et al.(2002) defined cyber sex as "looking at pictures, engaging in sexual chat, exchanging sexual emails, and sharing mutual sexual fantasies while masturbating" (p. 106) and that 8.5% of Internet users can be categorized as engaging in online sexual compulsivity.

Previous research has also identified a gender difference seeking pornography and related visual media. Nationally, the percentage of U.S. adult men compared to women who spend money on sexually explicit magazines or books is 16% versus 4%, on the purchase of X-rated videos, 23% versus 11%, and clubs with nude or seminude dancers, 23% versus 11% (Michael et al., 1994).

3. A man can tell if a woman is faking orgasm. Women scored 2.07; men scored

2.83. (the higher the score the greater the belief that a man can tell if the woman is faking).

While both sexes were more likely to believe that a man can’t tell if a woman is faking orgasm, men were significantly (p < .001) more likely to believe that a man can tell if a woman is faking orgasm. These differences no doubt reflect the fact that women know when they are faking and have experienced occasions when they have faked and perceived that their partner did not know. Men, oblivious to such faking, believed the orgasmic reactions were real. Richters et a1.(2006) confirmed that women have orgasm only 69% of their encounters with men, and these most often are the result of manual or oral stimulation.

4. Sex frequency drops radically after marriage. Women scored 2.83; men 3.17. (the higher the score the greater the belief that sex frequency drops after marriage).

Women were more likely (p < .003) than men to believe that sex frequency does not drop while men believe that it does drop. These differences may reflect the cultural messages to women about sex- that sex in the later years may remain good. Indeed there is research to support this cultural belief.

Winterich (2003) noted that postmenopausal women continued to enjoy active, enjoyable sex lives. However, the cultural message to men is less positive- that marriage is the end of sex.

Sexuality in the later years is stigmatized and pathologized (Kaye & Crittenden, 2005). We are taught that the elderly are sexless and that “dirty old men” lurk everywhere. A survey of young adult (age less than 30) college students in psychology courses revealed their current and projected attitudes of the elderly at age 70 in regard to sexuality (Floyd & Weiss, 2001). Contrary to what is actually more likely to occur as men and women age, the young male respondents reported (more strongly than the female respondents) that they anticipated not having a partner available. In reality, women are much more likely to be without a partner in the later years.


Little wonder there is frustration and disappointment between men and women as they include sexuality into their relationship These data confirm that men and women continue to think of sexuality from different perspectives. Specifically, men are more likely to think that oral sex is not sex; that cyber sex is not really cheating, that men can’t tell if a woman is faking orgasm and that sex frequency drops in marriage. Meanwhile, women tend to regard oral sex as sex, cyber sex as cheating, faking orgasm does occur and sex frequency stays high in marriage.


The data for this study should be interpreted cautiously. The convenience sample of 326 respondents is hardly representative of the over 17 million college students throughout the United States (Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007, Table 266).

The data for this study are also quantitative with no qualitative interviews to provide insights on the raw statistics. Subsequent research might include interviews with undergraduates to elicit more information about their views regarding oral sex, cyber sex, faking orgasm, and sexuality in marriage.

This study is also an exploratory analysis that should be followed up with multi-variate analysis to develop a more complete and accurate understanding of what undergraduate men and women believe about sex.


Floyd, M. and L. Weiss, L. (2001). Sex and aging: A survey of young adults. Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 26, 133-139.

Cooper, A., J. Morahan-Martin, R. M. Mathy, and M. Maheu (2002). Toward an increased understanding of user demographics in online sexual activities. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 28, 105-129.

Halpern-Felsher, B. L., Cornell, J. L., Kropp, R. Y., & Tschann, J. M. (2005). Oral versus vaginal sex among adolescents: Perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. Pediatrics, 115, 845-851.

Kaye, L. W. and J. A. Crittenden, J. A. (2005). Principles of clinical practice with older men. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, 32, 99-124.

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

O’Reilly, S., D. Knox, and M. Zusman. 2006. Correlates of sexual values: Data on 1019 undergraduates. Poster, Southern Sociological Society, New Orleans, March 24.

Remez, L. (2000). Oral sex among adolescents: Is it sex or is it abstinence? Family Planning Perspectives, 32, 298.

Richters, J., R. deVisser, C. Rissel, A. Smith. (2006) Sexual practices at last heterosexual encounter and occurrence of orgasm in a national survey. Journal of Sex Research, 43, 217-226.

Schneider, J. P. 2003. The impact of compulsive cybersex behaviors on the family. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 18, 329-355..

Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2007. 127th ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Winterich, J. A. 2003. Sex, menopause, and culture: Sexual orientation and the meaning of menopause for women’s sex lives. Gender and Society, 17, 627-642

DAVID KNOX, East Carolina University

MARTY Zusman, Indiana University Northwest

ANDREA MCNEELY, University of Virginia

COPYRIGHT 2008 Project Innovation (Alabama)

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

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