Contrary to some reports, most Canadian university students tell researchers they are happy with their sex lives. And for the majority, their most recent sexual partner was someone with whom they are in a committed relationship, according to the results of a recent survey.

When it comes to birth control, the students use a "surprisingly narrow" range of contraceptive methods.

These findings appear in a forthcoming sexual health study done by Trojan and the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN). Trojan, the condom brand manufactured by Church and Dwight Co., funded the survey and the Toronto-based SIECCAN developed and designed the academic study.

Leger Marketing conducted the multi-faceted online survey of university students – the sample size is 1,500 – aged 18 to 24 years. The survey piggybacked on a regular marketing survey they did for Trojan in December.

Alex McKay, SIECCAN's research coordinator, presented some of the study's findings at the annual Guelph Sexuality Conference at the University of Guelph on June 7.

Asked about their last sex partner, 60 per cent of the men and 70 per cent of the women in the nationally representative sample indicated it was either their spouse, fiancé or an otherwise committed romantic partner.

Thirty per cent of the men and 23 per cent of the women told researchers that the last time they had sex, it was with a casual sex partner.

As the table above shows, when it comes to casual sex, the highest numbers for most recent sexual partner are for a "friend with benefits." That's fitting for Canadian university students, given the homegrown origin of the term – the phrase first appeared in Alanis Morissette's 1995 hit song Head over Feet.

Young people are clear on the distinctions between the different types of casual sex relationships, sex researcher Jocelyn Wentland tells CBC News.

"They're very, very clear on what these relationship types are, and it doesn't matter whether you have engaged in one or not, you know the definition of it and you know the appropriate behavior that goes along with it."

Wentland is working on her PhD at the University of Ottawa's experimental psychology program. Her paper, "Talking casual sex not too casually: exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships," was published in 2011 in The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality.

The survey also asked the students about their current relationship status. Just over half the men and 40 per cent of the women said they were not dating, 13 per cent of both men and women were dating casually and 34 per cent of the men and 46 per cent of women were in a committed dating relationship, engaged, married or living together.

University students happy with their sex life

The study's findings about Canadian university students are in stark contrast to the American experience described in Donna Freitas' new book, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture Is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy.

In May, Freitas told CBC Radio listeners that at American universities, "Mostly, students are ambivalent or they're fairly unhappy.

"And one of the things I thought was really shocking was that when I asked students to talk about their hook-ups, pleasure almost never came up. They didn't talk about pleasure, as if pleasure was not even a part of the bargain."

Asked about their overall happiness with their sex life, 67 per cent of men said they were "happy" or "very happy," as did 80 per cent of the women.

But as McKay told CBC News, "men and women, particularly young men and women, use different criteria to assess their happiness with their sex life."

According to McKay, there's a "greater propensity for males to assess their own happiness simply in terms of the quantity of sex they are having" while a young woman is "more likely to be looking at the quality of her relationship."

Wentland says, "Maybe this is a reflection of women being accepting and pleased that there are various relationship options available to them."

The survey found that 77 per cent of the female students surveyed and 73 per cent of the men say they have had sex, defined as genital, oral or anal.

Condoms, the pill dominate birth control choices

The survey also looks at the use of birth control. Two methods dominate: the oral contraceptive pill and the condom. Other methods barely register as a preferred method of contraception.

The pill was the preferred choice of 47 per cent, the condom for 24 per cent and then the intra-uterine device (IUD) at 3 per cent. All other methods were at two per cent or lower. Thirteen per cent said "no method."

After seeing the survey results, McKay said the range of the contraceptive methods used by the Canadian women is "surprisingly narrow."

The Trojan/SIECCAN study looked at the contraceptive method used at last sexual intercourse, broken down by the type of relationship. Here's how the study defines those relationships:

  • Casual relationship: a one-night stand, hook-up, booty call or friends with benefits.
  • Dating relationship: the couple is not dating other people but have not committed to each other.
  • Committed relationship: they have made a commitment and also includes those who are living together, engaged or married.

The chart, which shows women's responses, has condoms as the most frequently used method but declining in use as women move into more committed relationships, while other methods have higher usage rates.

Comparing the numbers

Statistics Canada surveyed 15-24 year olds in 2009-2010 and found that 62.5 per cent of the women said they used a condom at last sexual intercourse.

In the United States in 2006-2008, for women currently using a method of contraception, 22.8 per cent of 15- to 19-year-olds and 24.5 per cent of 20- to 24-year-olds use condoms.

For the pill, the U.S. percentages are 54.1 for 15- to 19-year-olds and 48 for 20- to 24-year-olds. About a quarter of the 15- to 24-year-old women using contraception use a method other than condoms or oral contraceptives.

Although not directly comparable, the numbers suggest that young Canadian women use condoms more than their American counterparts.

Young American women appear to use other methods of contraception than condoms and the pill more often than young Canadian women.

Young people doing "fairly well"

McKay says there is often an assumption that a very large chunk of women who use condoms are using them to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STIs), but most women who do use condoms "see them as an effective and convenient method of birth control."

Wentland, who wrote a paper on attitudes towards condom use, found that "when you ask people why they use a condom, it's pregnancy prevention. That's by far the number one reason and STIs is a very distant second."

McKay notes that not very many women use dual contraception, which is the pill to prevent pregnancy and condoms to prevent STIs.

Overall, McKay says "we find that young people tend to do fairly well in terms of contraception generally." As further evidence of this, he points out that the teen pregnancy rate has declined by a significant amount over the last decades, although leveling off over the last five years, and "that is clearly showing that young people have become better at contraception over time."

The full results of the Trojan/SIECCAN study will be published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality and other academic research journals.