Sexual début and preventive practices among male and female higher education students in France

A considerable proportion of students starting higher education in France have not yet had sexual relations, making this population a high priority target for prevention policies and information on consent to sexual relations. As INED senior researcher Arnaud Régnier-Loilier shows on the basis of data from the Enquête Santé des Étudiants survey (ESE 2016), preventive practices and specific behaviors (condom use, contraception, sexually transmitted infections, unplanned pregnancies) differ by conditions of sexual debut. 

Higher education is a period in which sexual activity, couple formation, and cohabitation are disconnected

Higher education is a major transitional stage in the sexual component of young people’s lives. Whereas at age seventeen, half of enrolled university students in France have never had sexual intercourse, by age twenty-two that proportion is down to one-fourth. While female and, to a lesser degree, male university students have partnered at the younger age, partners are rarely living together then. 

Not all students wanted to have their first sexual intercourse

Students who had already had sexual relations were asked whether, retrospectively, their first sexual intercourse was “wanted/not really wanted/forced on [them].” The proportion of first sexual relations “accepted but not really wanted” or “forced” was twice as high among female students (13%) than male students (6%). And the proportion was higher the younger the age at which first intercourse occurred. While social background had little to do with consent, nationality did have an effect: the proportion of “not really wanted” or “forced” sexual relations was as high as 23% among female foreign students and 14% among their male counterparts. 

Prevention practices related to conditions of first sexual relations

A correlation was found between first sexual intercourse conditions and prevention practices. Early sexual debut goes together with lower condom use, especially among men. Moreover, risky sexual behaviors are correlated with the degree to which the first sexual relation was “wanted.” Whereas 16% of female students and 20% of male students who “wanted” their first sexual intercourse at the time it occurred say they did not use a condom, the figures rise to 26% and 41% respectively when those first relations were “not really wanted,” not to say “forced” on them. 

Lower levels of prevention among foreign students and students with low-income parents

Preventive behaviors vary considerably by social milieu: 29% of male students of modest social background (parents’ monthly income below 1,500€) did not use a condom, as against 19% of male students whose parents’ monthly income was over 3,500€. The difference was equally pronounced among female students (24% vs 13%). Moreover, twice as many foreign than French-born students did not use a condom during their first sexual intercourse. 

Prevention and contraception practices: concerns differ by sex

Male students report less often than their female counterparts having used prevention during their first sexual intercourse (condom, something to prevent pregnancy), and fewer men than women report having had a sexually transmitted infection (9% versus 13%). This is probably due to the fact that men’s sexual health is not regularly monitored; there is no equivalent for men of women’s regular gynecological care. Systematically encouraging both men and women at young ages to get tested for what may well be asymptomatic sexual infections is a key way of preventing inter-partner contamination and the unperceived development of complications. As for unplanned pregnancies, male students are less likely to report them than female students (6% vs 8%), a difference explained by the fact that women do not necessarily inform the progenitor.

These differences by sex reveal the persistence of specialized roles wherein women are more concerned about sexual and reproductive health than men. Prevention policies should not only promote risk-reducing sexual behaviors but encourage a greater sense of responsibility in men. 

Learn more

Arnaud Régnier-Loilier, 2020, "La vie intime des étudiants : entrée dans la sexualité et situation amoureuse" and "Pratiques préventives des étudiants, infections sexuellement transmissibles et grossesses non désirées," in La santé des étudiants, ed. Feres Belghith, Aline Bohet, Yannick Morvan et al. (Paris: La Documentation Française).

Enquête Santé des Étudiants (ESE) [Student health survey]

The Observatoire Nationale de la Vie Étudiante (OVE) first conducted the ESE survey in 2016. The aim of the survey is to provide a general overview of student health in France. In 2016 it included questions that enabled researchers to acquire an updated view of the intimate lives of young people in France, here limited to enrolled university students. For this first edition, the survey was conducted solely with students enrolled at universities in metropolitan France and, for the academic year 2015-2016, in the country’s overseas départements and territories. The findings are based on analysis of 18,875 questionnaires. 

On line:October 2020