July 11-13, 2010

2010 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Alcohol Use and Sexual Risk Taking: Survey Methods to Examine Misperceived Norms in a College Population

David W. Craig, Ph.D., Dept. of Chemistry

H. Wesley Perkins, Ph.D., Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Hobart & William Smith Colleges


Student conversations and “locker room” talk of sexual exploits suggest an active and risky sexual life on college campuses. This study separates fact from fiction by examining sexual health norms and perceptions using three electronic mail delivered anonymous web-based surveys administered in 2008 and 2009. The survey studies included 565 respondents (52% response rate), 203 respondents (51% response rate), and 293 respondents (32% response rate). Findings demonstrated that 1) respondents significantly overestimated the percentage of peers who intentionally became intoxicated with the intention of having casual sex and that this overestimate was associated with the respondent being more likely to do so personally; 2) while two thirds of students reported having zero or one sexual partner in the previous 12 months only 10% were able to identify this as the campus norm; and 3) the majority of students use condoms but perceptions of peers reveal underestimates of this protective behavior and that students use this protective behavior less frequently when under the influence of alcohol. Conditions are ripe for a social norms intervention to grow healthy behaviors and reduce risky ones.