Your first day at college: You have wanted this day for so long, and finally it is here — free at last to test your wings. Unfortunately, the one thing you didn’t anticipate is the sudden insecurity which oozes into not just your school work, but all aspects of your life. A new study from New York University illuminates one very dangerous result of the sudden lack of confidence you are feeling. The odds of you having unprotected intercourse double between freshman and senior year.

All your parents ever wanted was for you to have a better life than they did. However, what they (and more importantly, you) never counted on was how much you felt like a fish out of water once you arrived at your new school. Looking around, it’s clear your roommates are more worldly and sophisticated than you, knowing in ways you never even imagined. You’re off balance, 24/7, and when you visit your parents for Thanksgiving, you really hear yourself for the first time in what seems like years though you know it's only been months. Are you talking just like your roommate now, using those same intonations you hated when you first heard her speak? Somehow you have become impressionable, how long will it take to recover your sense of self...

What Students (And Their Parents) Should Know

When asked what inspired his study of college sexual behavior, Jonathan Marc Bearak, a doctoral candidate in Sociology at New York University, answered directly. "Past studies looked at college students as a static group, rather than analyzing differences between students during and subsequent to freshman year," Bearak told Medical Daily in an email. "But if college actually affects students’ behaviors, then, their behaviors should change the longer they’re exposed." For his study, then, Bearak explored the evolution of behavior during college hook-ups — uncommitted sexual encounters — between the first and final year of school. Bearak used the Online College Social Life Survey to compile data between Autumn 2005 and Spring 2011 at 21 colleges and universities in the United States. What did he discover?

As students progress through college, hookups become increasingly likely while condom rates decline. In numbers, the probability of unprotected casual sex increased from seven percent to 16 percent per hookup as the students moved from freshman to senior year. Meanwhile, the odds of casual intercourse doubled, while the odds of condom use halved during that same time frame. According to Bearak, these results are consistent with the view that college is perceived as a safer environment.

One disheartening dynamic he observed was condom use rates in freshman year were lowest among students with the most highly-educated mothers, but following freshman year, students with lower-educated mothers converged to this same lower rate. When asked why freshman with less educated mothers were more likely to use condoms, Bearak stated in an email to Medical Daily, "I would imagine... there has been more emphasis in low-income neighborhoods, where earlier sex is more common, on getting high school kids to use condoms, both because unplanned pregnancy is a big problem and because of concerns about STI’s."

Sadly, Bearak could not give a definitive reason why they eventually unlearn this wise behavior. “Do undergraduates perceive sexually transmitted infection to be a problem for those from lower-class or less educated backgrounds?” wrote Bearak. He noted that students who get sexually involved with others from their same campus and students from higher socio-economic backgrounds “may feel safer, such that they perceive warnings about the potential consequences of sexual behavior apply less to them.” 

Source: Bearak JM. Casual Contraception in Casual Sex: Life-Cycle Change in Undergraduates' Sexual Behavior in Hookups. Social Forces. 2014.