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The key findings of a new poll of students’ personal lives published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (@HEPI_news) in Sex and Relationships Among Students: Summary Report (HEPI Policy Note 30, attached) include:

  1. most students (58%) regard making friends as more important than finding sexual partners and just one-in-ten students (10%) expected to have sex during freshers’ week while a similar proportion (9%) did so
  2. only a small minority of students think their prior education prepared them for the reality of sex and relationships in higher education (6% of respondents ‘strongly agree’ and a further 21% ‘slightly agree’)
  3. a majority of students think it should be compulsory to pass a sexual consent assessment before entering higher education (26% ‘strongly agree’ and 32% ‘slightly agree’)
  4. most students (59%) are ‘very confident’ about ‘what constitutes sexual consent’ but only half as many (30%) are ‘very confident’ about how to navigate sexual consent after alcohol has been consumed
  5. two-thirds of students say they know how to challenge inappropriate sexual behaviour (with 23% saying they feel ‘very confident’ in doing so and 43% ‘fairly confident’)
  6. four-in-ten female students (40%) report that their periods may have hampered them in assignments and over one-third (35%) say they have missed an academic appointment due to their periods
  7. around half of students (52%) say their universities provided ‘good messaging about the importance of wellbeing’ during lockdown and nearly as many (48%) say it was ‘easy’ to maintain friendships
  8. only a small proportion of respondents agree their university has told them ‘how to have safe intimate and sexual relations online’ (5% ‘strongly agree’ and 9% ‘slightly agree’ while 45% ‘strongly disagree’ and a further 17% ‘slightly disagree’)

The poll was conducted for HEPI among 1,004 undergraduate students by the professional market research company YouthSight in August 2020. The results have been weighted by gender, year of study and institution type to ensure they are representative.

Nick Hillman, the Director of HEPI and the author of the report, said:

‘It is vital to build a better understanding of how students live today, including during the COVID disruption, if they are to have the right support. Our robust polling provides the most comprehensive, accurate and useful summary of the sex lives and relationships of students in the UK that has been published for many years. By telling students about the experiences of their peers, we hope the results will make it easier for them to make informed decisions about their own lives.

‘The poll confirms we need to alter the common understanding of what it is like to be in higher education today. In the main, students are not irresponsible nor do they lack resilience, but they sometimes feel unprepared for life as an undergraduate. With the right information to hand, they are generally keen to support one another during challenging times.

‘One particularly striking finding is the high proportion of female students whose higher education has been affected by their periods. This supplements what we know about what happens at school. Our new data suggest higher education institutions should give female health matters further consideration across teaching, learning and assessment.

‘More generally, the results show students enter university with a range of different experiences and differences continue throughout their time in higher education. Much of our polling paints a positive picture but some elements of the results suggest – if the resources are available – that schools, universities and policymakers could all do more to help students navigate what is a key transition point in their lives. 

Other key findings

  • Undergraduate students enter higher education with a range of prior experiences: 43% ‘had never had sex with anyone’, one-quarter (25%) had not ‘intimately kissed anyone’ and 18% were ‘in a long-distance relationship’.
  • One-third of students say they have ‘learned more about sex from pornography than from formal education’, with 11% ‘strongly’ agreeing and 24% ‘slightly’ agreeing.
  • A large majority of students know alcohol and drugs can lead to risky sexual behaviour (with 45% ‘strongly’ agreeing and 42% ‘slightly’ agreeing).
  • Around one-half of students expressed positive responses on ‘being able to ask for advice and / or help’ about sex and relationship issues, where to find that advice and how to access sexual health and contraception services.
  • Most students feel ‘able to speak to one or more friends at university about sex, sexual health and relationships’ (32% ‘strongly agree’ and a further 37% ‘slightly agree’).
  • Over one-third of students (36%) are ‘fairly confident’ on ‘who and how to contact someone if I am concerned about an aspect of sex including bullying, coercion or regret’, and a further 15% say they are ‘very confident’ on this.
  • Two-thirds of students are confident they know what to do if someone they know is in a harmful or abusive relationship. On the other hand, one-in-four (25%) students say they are ‘not very confident’ on this and a further 5% ‘not at all confident’.
  • There are positive results on the understanding of a range of consent issues, from ‘how not to put pressure on others’ to knowledge of legislation ‘around sex and consent’. Nonetheless, around 10% of students are ‘not very confident’ and a smaller minority ‘not at all confident’ on ‘how to communicate consent clearly’, ‘what constitutes sexual assault and violence’ and ‘what constitutes sexual harassment’.
  • Students’ experiences confirm they are heterogenous: for example, 41% say they have had sex during their time as a student and 11% say they are ‘voluntarily abstaining from sex (not due to government lockdown requirements)’.
  • Just over half of students (52%) say they have watched pornography, with one-third (31%) saying they currently do so. The proportion who say they currently watch pornography is twice as high for men (43%) as for women (22%).
  • A higher proportion of women (47%) than men (34%) say they have had sex during their time as a student; these men are less likely to claim they have had one sexual partner.
  • Among those students who have had sex during their time in higher education, the majority (52%) have had just one sexual partner and a further one-quarter (26%) have had two or three.
  • One-in-eight (13%) female students say side effects from contraception have affected their academic work and one-in-nine (11%) say such effects have caused them to miss a class.
  • Four-in-ten students (40%) have undertaken sexting, and 37% of students have sent naked or semi-naked images to another person.

Helen Marshall, the Chief Executive of Brook, a charity that specialises in working with young people to promote their sexual health, said:

‘This research provides an extremely valuable insight into students’ understanding of sex and relationships. While some of the findings are encouraging, much more still needs to be done to support students at university, many of whom will be away from home for the first time. Young people are sadly entering higher education feeling unprepared for the reality of sex and relationships, and there is clear demand from students themselves for greater education around consent.

‘Although mandatory relationships and sex education has recently been introduced in schools, Brook’s experience shows that students would hugely benefit from further support and learning around these issues. Brook already delivers consent training in several universities and we want to encourage more institutions to improve their support services, empowering students to confidently manage their own sexual health, relationships and wellbeing.’

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