Ask Dr. H: Week 8

Dr. Jill Hoxmeir, Public Health Professor

Dear Dr. H,

How do the sexual behaviors of CWU students compare to those of religiously-affiliated colleges/universities? How do the sexual behaviors of students of public colleges/universities compare to those of religiously-affiliated colleges/universities?

Dear anonymous,

Sex and religion… always an interesting combo. My guess (hope) is that you aren’t asking me to actually conduct this study because, simply put, there is no current data to answer your exact question in a timely manner.

What further complicates this question is what you mean by “sexual behaviors” and “religious affiliation.” While we can get info on students’ oral, anal, and vaginal sex frequency and number of partners (data I shared in last week’s column,) that’s a fairly limited glimpse into “sexual behaviors.” And, while there is a common designation of “religiously-affiliated” for institutions to subscribe, or not, there exists a spectrum of the extent to which these schools really affiliate with a religion – and while schools can affiliate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the students affiliate.

A good case in point: a recent study of college women found that those attending Catholic universities reported more “hook ups” (defined as casual physical sexual encounters) and those at Protestant universities reported less “hook ups” compared to women at non-religiously affiliated institutions. However, what it really came down to was how religious the actual student was, in practice; that is, regardless of attending a religiously affiliated college, women who went to church more often reported fewer hook ups. Women at the Catholic institutions reported more hooks ups, but they also went to church less.

So, sexual behaviors had less to do with the affiliation of the institution and more to do with the affiliation of the person. Then again, sexual behaviors in this case were “casual physical sexual encounters” and likely includes everything from kissing to sex and everything in between – quite a range that might be worth further investigation.

I’m guessing you’re curious about the relationship between religion and sex, and the existing research on this is inconsistent: Some research shows that “religious” people delay sex longer/have less partners compared to non-religious counterparts, and other research finds no difference. It really depends on how ‘sexually active’ and ‘religiosity’ were defined.

Attending a religious institution as well, seems not to be a clear predictor of sexual behaviors. “Affiliation” is a loose term- both academic institutions and people attach different meanings to it. With the exception of, say, Brigham Young University (BYU) where there are few non-Mormons in attendance, and the school adheres strictly to the teachings of the Mormon religion, students at a religiously affiliated institution may be much different than those somewhere else. BYU, and some others, also have policies about coeds mingling in dorms, for example, or prohibit cohabitation between students of opposite sex unless they are married. Policies such as these would just make sex for singles more difficult.

All this is to say that whether a person has sex – or the kinds of sex they are having – is influenced by a whole host of factors, and religion is just one of them. Given the diversity of students’ experiences, values, cultures, norms, etc., it would oversimplify the issue to draw conclusions on the protective nature of the institution type in its relation to students’ sexual behavior. And, quite frankly, there are just so many sexual behaviors not asked about in survey research to really get a full picture of the situation.