Let’s Talk About Sex: Bristol SU sex and relationships survey
By Sally Patterson, Equality, Liberation and Access Officer, Bristol SU and Alice Phillips, Research & Evaluation Coordinator, Bristol SU
Earlier this year Bristol Students’ Union launched the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ survey to students at the University of Bristol. The survey covered issues as broad as students’ relationships, sex lives, experiences of sexual health services and experiences of harassment and assault. The survey gathered 693 responses, with a 78% completion rate. All questions were optional.
What did we find out about students’ experiences of sex and relationships?
The majority of our students were in a relationship – 51% in a monogamous relationship and 3% in a non-monogamous relationship. 8% were in a ‘friends with benefits’ arrangement.
Students were most likely to have met their partner through friends, but 11% had met their partner through dating apps. In total, 60% of students had used dating apps, with the most popular app being Tinder. Students who were lesbian, gay, bisexual or another minority sexual orientation were more likely to have used dating apps – 72%, compared to 54% of straight students.
Many students spoke about a ‘disposable dating culture’ at university, which made it hard to form long term relationships. Male students in particular also spoke about a pressure to have sex. Arriving at university as a virgin was very common; 36% of students were virgins when they arrived at the University of Bristol.
Our research found that men were more likely to consume pornography – 87% reported doing so compared to 42% of women. A surprising 19% of students had considered working in the sex industry; 6% had considered working in a direct role (such as escorting) and 13% had considered working in an indirect role (such as stripping or webcamming). 2% of students had worked in the sex industry whilst studying.
What did we find out about students’ experiences of sex and relationship education?
The sex and relationship education students received prior to university was far from comprehensive. Students were most likely to have received education around the age of consent, STIs/STDs and contraception. Just 24% had received an education around sexual assault and rape and 24% had received education on healthy relationships. 38% had received an education around understanding when someone is consenting or can consent.
Only 7% of students had received an education on same sex relationships, showing the continuing legacy of Section 28, repealed in 2003. 12% had received education on pornography and 16% on sexting and revenge porn. 6% had received no sex and relationship education at all, but this was much higher for international and EU students – 22% of these students had never received sex and relationship education.
What did we find out about students’ experiences of sexual health?
A worrying number of students had never had a sexual health screening – 41% of students reported that they had never been tested. This figure was 34% for students who were single and sexually active. 31% of students were concerned about a partner respecting their wishes with regards to contraception.
Many students spoke about the need for better sexual health testing in Bristol. The Student Health Service based at the University currently does not offer full screenings, and many students felt that the Unity Sexual Health clinic was too far away. However, those that had been to the clinic had a good experience with the service.
What did we find out about students’ experiences of harassment?
52% of students had experienced sexual harassment whilst studying at the University – 63% of women and 21% of men. 29% had experienced this from a fellow student and 42% had experienced this from a member of the public.
Students were most likely to experience sexual harassment in a nightclub, bar or pub – 47% of students who had experienced harassment reported this, with 34% reporting that they had experienced harassment on the street. 7% had experienced sexual harassment in their halls of residence, and 7% in their student accommodation.
Women were considerably more likely to feel unsafe at night – just 40% felt safe walking home to their accommodation compared to 90% of men, and only 34% felt safe walking around Bristol city centre, compared to 78% of men.
What did we find out about students’ experiences of sexual violence and consent?
17% of women and 7% of men reported experiencing sexual assault or rape whilst studying at the University. Many of these students spoke about how more specialised support was needed for survivors, as currently the Student Counselling Service at the University does not provide specialised trauma support.
25% of students reported feeling concerned about being pressured to have sex, with 30% of women reporting this concern compared to 14% of men. Meanwhile, 30% of students were concerned about their partner feeling pressured to have sex, with men more concerned about this than women.
Students reported finding it easier to communicate about consent with a long-term partner, with 87% reporting feeling confident about this, compared to 64% who felt confident communicating about consent with a casual partner. Such findings highlight the importance of normalising conversations around consent.
What are we going to do with these findings?
Our findings paint a rather bleak picture of the sexual education that students receive before coming to university. It is clear that many people arrive with little understanding of safe and consensual sex and relationships.
Our findings around sexual harassment and assault mirror recent research in this field, and reinforce the need for a strong and coherent approach to tackling sexual violence at universities. This must be orchestrated at every level of university life, from lecture halls to nightclubs. The findings will be used to push for the immediate implementation of a Report and Support Tool at the University of Bristol, so that those affected by sexual violence can report their experiences, either with identifying information or anonymously.
Furthermore, the findings highlight the necessity of tackling a culture under which sexual violence is normalised and reinforced; this can only be achieved through education and a strict zero tolerance policy. As well as lobbying the University on the issues raised in the research, Bristol SU will also be revisiting its own policies and procedures, in order to ensure that we are protecting students to the best of our ability. It’s clear that more must be done to educate students around sexual health, which continues to be stigmatised and deprioritised. Our research also offers novel insight into the experiences of LGBT+ students, and it is clear that we can be doing more to address their unique needs at university.