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With support from the sexual health charity Brook, the Higher Education Policy Institute (@HEPI_news) is publishing Student Relationships, Sex and Sexual Health Survey (HEPI Report 139). This new report draws on previously unpublished polling data covering students’ experiences of sex, sexual health and relationships.

The key findings include:


  1. Approximately half (56%) of sexually active students have never had a test for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and only 30% of sexually active students have had a test while at university;
  2. Over four-fifths (84%) of LGBT+ students who received education about sex and relationships at school said it was ‘not very relevant’ or ‘not at all relevant’ to their sexual orientation; and the majority of disabled students (84%) who reported receiving education about sex and relationships at school say their education was ‘not at all relevant’ or ‘not very relevant’ to their disabilities.
  1. Two-thirds (65%) of sexually active students report having had sex under the influence of alcohol, with 58% reporting having had sex with someone who had been drinking alcohol;
  2. Half of students are ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ confident (51%) about how to contact the right person if they are concerned about an aspect of sex including bullying, coercion or regret while 44% are either ‘not at all confident’ or ‘not very confident’;
  3. Only half (51%) of sexually active students felt safe the first time they had sex at university;
  4. More students report meeting someone on a night out and going home together and not having sex (17%) than the number of students who report meeting someone on a night out and going back and having sex (11%); and
  5. The majority of students who watch pornography report positive or neutral experiences, but approximately 20% report negative experiences across a range of questions.

Michael Natzler, Policy Officer at HEPI and a co-author of the report, said:


‘Polling is a great way to learn about students’ lives and enables support to be targeted. Our robust polling sheds light on new ground and shows where higher education institutions could do more to support their students. For example, most LGBT+ students and disabled students say their school-based sex education was insufficient. Higher education institutions could support students to fill in knowledge gaps by promoting and facilitating relevant learning opportunities resources.  


‘Working with students to help them make informed choices about relationships and sexual health and to ensure they know how to get support would contribute towards better mental and physical health.’


David Evans OBE, Professor in Sexualities and Genders, Health and Wellbeing at the University of Greenwich and a co-author of the report, said:


 ‘This is a significant report, published between two important crossroads. First, it captures data from students who were in compulsory education before Relationship and Sex Education became mandatory in English schools and reflects the more “hit and miss” approach to former Sex and Relationships provision. The report also takes a look at undergraduate students and their sex and sexual health lives during COVID-19. Many have faced challenges such as mental anguish caused by physical separation.


‘There are important messages for higher education institutions. They need to do more than just make their campuses and student lives safer, especially in regards to sexual violence and abuse. They also have opportunities to promote and celebrate the inclusion and wellbeing of all in higher education.’


Helen Marshall, Chief Executive of Brook, said:


‘This research sheds valuable light on the diversity of students’ knowledge and experience of sex and relationships. While some findings are positive, it is clear there are still gaps in the relationships and sex education young people receive before they begin higher education. More needs to be done to normalise STI testing, and the responses from disabled and LGBT+ students reveal many are not currently receiving inclusive Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) that speaks to their experiences.


‘Universities have an important role to play in empowering students to manage their sexual health and wellbeing. Brook works with a number of universities, and we want to encourage more institutions to improve their support services to help students confidently navigate the realities of sex and relationships.’


In the Foreword to the report, Dame Diana Johnson DBE MP, writes:


‘As we emerge from COVID-19 and the world continues to re-open, it is more important than ever that we continue to call for young people to receive high-quality, factual information that will empower them to make the best decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

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