Ask college students about sex on campus and they'll likely say nearly everyone is having it, lots of it. That is, everyone except them.
In surveys across the country, college students report they think their peers are having more sex and with more people than is actually occurring.
Arizona State University is a case in point. ASU student-health official Karen Moses says 80 percent of students who completed an anonymous survey last year thought most of their peers had more than one sex partner in the previous year. Assuming students answered honestly, only 10 percent of them actually did.
In an article about sex on campus that appeared in ASU's student-produced arts and entertainment magazine, four students who were interviewed guessed that between 2 percent and 12 percent of ASU students had never had sex. In contrast, nearly a quarter of students surveyed by the student-health services said they had never had sexual intercourse, and close to 30 percent said they were not sexually active at the time.
Ms. Moses says the problem with such widespread misperceptions is that students may feel compelled to cave in to a perceived peer pressure that has no basis in reality.
That's also the opinion of Jim Grizzel at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, who has conducted a health-risk appraisal on his campus in each of the past seven years. "Perceptions drive behaviors," he says. "People want to feel good about themselves, so they go out and do what they think everybody else is doing."
Research on binge drinking supports Mr. Grizzel's claim. At Northern Illinois University, a campaign to educate students about the rate of binge drinking (which was lower than most students thought) significantly lowered the number of students who binged, while traditional programs failed.
According to those who present the norms about student sexuality in classrooms and workshops, students react first with surprise, then relief when given similar information about sex on campus.
"They start saying, 'I'm normal,' " says Grizzel. "It feels good."
But challenging stereotypes about student behavior has not been easy at ASU. An article about the survey in the campus newspaper, the State Press, ignored most of its findings and branded the survey unscientific.
Reporter Genoa Sibold-Cohn says she wrote her article in response to a local news story that reported on part of the survey having to do with drinking. According to the survey, 30 percent of ASU students do not drink, and nearly 70 percent did not binge drink in the two weeks prior to the survey.
"It generated a lot of discussion in the newsroom," Ms. Cohn says. "We said, 'This can't be right.' When we took it to the statisticians, they agreed with us. We wanted to show that another survey needs to be done."
Cohn's main criticism is that the survey was distributed to selected undergraduate classes rather than to a random sample. It was also given during finals week when students may have been drinking less than they normally would.
Moses acknowledges that the timing of the survey was bad. But she says its results on drinking and sex were consistent with published research and data collected "on every campus I can think of."
So why do students find the results so hard to believe?
Like most of her colleagues, Moses blames the media.
"[The media] do the typical thing, which is to highlight extremes of behavior," she says. "That increases the misperceptions about what is normal. We're so used to talking about sex and drinking as if they were the norm. It takes a lot of energy to change the message."
* Kathy Khoury, a freelance writer and journalist, is in the first year of her master's degree in mass communications at Arizona State University.