WINNIPEG — When Hollywood is dominated by bed-hopping reality-TV personalities, sex tape A-listers and crotch-flashing starlets, it’s tempting to conclude teens are as sex-saturated as the celebs they idolize.
Throw in some hand-wringing reports on youth “hook-up” culture and the popularity of racy text messages, and you might conclude high schools and universities are dens of depravity.
But the truth about the campus coeds — at least, in Winnipeg — is more complex and less salacious, based on more than two decades of sex surveys of more than 7,000 first-year students by one University of Manitoba psychology professor.
Bob Altemeyer started surveying his intro-psychology students in 1984 after the not-so-shocking discovery that they tuned in more closely when the standard curriculum turned to sex.
“But what they really wanted to know (and) didn’t know was, what’s normal?” he says.
Now the recently retired professor, father to MLA Rob Altemeyer, has written a book about the findings of his Secret Surveys. And although the surprisingly intimate facts and figures in Sex and Youth might raise eyebrows, it’s not for reasons you’d expect.
To start, surveyed students, whose age averaged 19, were virgins — a quarter of women and half the men polled in 2007.
On the flip side, teens of late were more likely to have casual sex hook-ups or seek out “friends with benefits,” in numbers that surprise Altemeyer.
But the vast majority of coupling happened between couples in a relationship, and the missionary position was No. 1. Only a small fraction of students said they had unprotected sex, and many used both condoms and the birth control pill.
The results often amazed students, Altemeyer says, especially when they realized sexual inexperience wasn’t the plight of a lonely few.
“Consistently, they’re surprised that virginity is as widespread as it is, especially among the guys in that age,” he says. “The perception is the opposite: nobody’s a virgin, and the guys doubly aren’t virgins.”
Students were also surprised at how women wanted to be seen as sexy, he says, pointing to relentless pressure in the media and among peers.
The number of casual hook-ups and young people finding “friends with benefits” — sexual relationships with no strings attached — stunned students, he says.
Slightly less than 40 per cent of men and women in Altemeyer’s 2008 group had hooked up, but the figures were on the rise in recent years. Less than a third had had a friend with benefits.
Altemeyer says he’s surprised by how much more sexually active women are today than in years gone by.
He also sees changes in behaviour he believes stem from exposure to pornography — young men seem to get less pleasure from foreplay, and demand more during oral sex, leading women to oblige in ways they don’t always like. Altemeyer says if he was still surveying students, he’d want to ask how those dynamics affected their relationships.
But he also believes access to porn has sparked other attitude shifts. Teens are more sexually adventurous, he says, and women enjoy themselves more, which he suspects is because they’re more assertive.
After decades of surveying, Altemeyer says he’s most amazed by the candour of his students. The handful of questions on his first-ever sex survey in 1984 evolved into a detailed and at times explicit questionnaire, but although taking part was voluntary, participation regularly topped 90 per cent.
Most students took a crack at every question, even though they had been asked to be entirely honest and to leave blank those questions they couldn’t answer truthfully.
Altemeyer credits the participation rate to both the trust engendered through the class, and the methodology. He reviewed questions with students in advance, and designed the survey to guarantee anonymity. In over two decades he says he’s never received a survey complaint through the university’s ethical review committee.
Altemeyer says he chose to self-publish his book, sold online at www.theauthoritarians.com, in part to avoid scraps with editors over writing style. And while he hopes former students read it, he’d also like to find an audience with their parents, whom he says know “basically nothing” about their kids’ sexual behaviour based on survey results.
“I think parents are woefully uninformed about what their children’s lives are like,” he says. “They might make better decisions, and they might give better advice and guidance if they understood their children better.”