“Everyone has loads of sex at university!” says university-specialist hook-up site

Those keeping a keen eye on statistics in the media last week would have been confronted with the revelation that a shockingly-high percentage of our educational elite are less than intelligent where safe sex is concerned:

A quarter of students will catch an STI in their first year

Half aren’t even sure who they got it from.

University is certainly a time for fun and frolics – but new research suggests that some students may be taking their partying a touch too hard, and endangering their health in the process.

In fact, 23 per cent will catch an STI before they finish their first year of university, half of whom (54 per cent) aren’t even able to remember who gave it them, according to a survey conducted by shagatuni.com.

Source: Independent, 17th October 2013

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A QUARTER of students catch an STI during their first year at university – and half are too drunk to remember who gave it to them

It is known as a time to let your hair down while at a safe distance from your parents.

But new research suggests many students are risking their health through irresponsible sexual habits.

Some 23 per cent of students admit to having caught a sexually transmitted infection during their first year alone, according to a new survey.

Source: Daily Mail, 17th October 2013

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On the surface, both of these stories appear to be responsible pieces of reporting – if it’s indeed true that vast swathes of university attendees are endangering their health by practicing unsafe sex, it’s commendable and important that the media are taking steps to highlight and tackle.

However, as is often the case with PR-led data in the media, the source of the story can entirely undermine the message – especially when the content of the news article or press release is often nothing more than a delivery mechanism for the brand name of the company who originated the story. In the case of this report on the prevalence of STIs in the student population, that company is a no-strings-attached hook-up site aimed at university students:

The poll, rather ironically conducted by the website www.shagatuni.com, also revealed that 21 per cent caught an STI after their first year but before they finished their studies.

Source: Daily Mail, 17th October 2013

For those unaware of who shagatuni.com are – and I expect that’s the vast majority of you – I’ll let them explain in their own words:

We’re the naughtier and sexier sister site of DateatUni.com

Our sole purpose is to help students meet up for sex. This isn’t an ordinary student dating site. We offer a space for students to get laid any night of the week and not have any of the strings attached with dating. So if you want to find sexy students at your university who just want a shag, JOIN UP! We’re sure you’ll have fun!

Source: shagatuni.com

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It may seem counter-intuitive that a site aiming to advertise themselves to students would run a lead about the prevalence of STIs, but the real purpose of the release is actually buried a little below the lead – to advertise the promiscuity of their members:

The research also revealed that theatre studies students appeared to be the most promiscuous, with an average of 28 sexual partners while at university.

Source: Daily Mail, 17th October 2013

A message which ties in somewhat neatly with their own sales pitch, taken again from their website:

Whether you’re a shy student who feels more comfortable making introductions online or a university player who needs to guarantee they’re getting action each night of the week – our site accommodates every type of student. We even get female students sign up who are already in a relationship. We don’t judge! When you’re away from home and away from your partner for that length of time, we understand you have sexual needs to be fulfilled.

Source: shagatuni.com

It may well be that the statistics in the original articles in the Mail and Independent are actually accurate – but it’s certainly cause for concern that they’re obtained via a self-reported poll on a site dedicated to helping university ‘players’ guarantee themselves some ‘action each night of the week’. 

There are other causes for concern, too – take for instance the headline statistic that 23% of all students will catch an STI by the end of their first year. This would be a deeply alarming figure if taken from, perhaps, records at the student health clinic or STI clinic – however, taken from a self-reported poll on a site such as ‘shagatuni.com’, it’s impossible to take seriously.

For one, there’s no accounting for students who had an STI prior to joining university, but only discovered it or received a diagnosis while studying. On the flipside, there’s also no guarantee that the respondents to the poll actually even had an STI – it’s not beyond the reaches of a teenage boy to give false positive responses as a puerile joke; after all, it’s only an online poll on a hook-up site, it’s not like it matters, right?

Perhaps more damningly, despite all reports claiming the 23% figure represented all students, in fact only a subset of students were eligible for the poll:

The poll, which only involved people who had remained single while at university, also revealed that 73 per cent of students were under the influence of alcohol when engaging in the majority of their sexual encounters.

It’s therefore unlikely to assume those questioned in the poll are reflective of the full university population, given that those in stable relationships (and presumably therefore less likely to be engaging in the kind of sexual behaviour most associated with a high risk of contracting an STI) weren’t included.

That said, an even more glaringly confounding sample bias is clearly at play here: only students who elected to sign up to the site ‘shag at uni’ were included in the survey. Even amongst the student population who consider themselves to be single, it’s unlikely that those polled are representative – it’s strongly possible that those who would seek out and sign up to a site such as this may engage in riskier sexual behaviour, and with multiple partners. In essence, that’s the very business model of this website.

So, in summary, we have a relatively niche subset of a subset of a population, likely predisposed to more risky sexual behaviour, self-reporting in an online poll with no verification of their answers, and no incentive not to report a false positive as a joke. Hardly groundbreaking research.

Nor is it a difficult statistic to critically examine: the number of students currently at university in England alone is around 1.6million, of which we can reasonably assume no more than 600,000 are in their first year at university. Meanwhile, according to the HPA there were 450,000 STI diagnoses in England in 2012 – meaning that the 23% of first year students contracting an STI represent 30% of the overall STI diagnoses for the entire country. Even if we were to assume every other year of university sees an unblemished record of sexual health, it seems tremendously unlikely that university freshers represent almost a third of all STI cases.

Of course, none of this renders the underlying assertion that large numbers of students are engaging in unsafe sex and contracting STIs – but this poll and the associated news coverage can barely be said to offer anything on the matter, given the compromised motives of the data source and the flawed methodology of the survey.

Still, at least you can remember the name of the website, so the only aim of the whole story was a success.

This post was originally published in the Guardian, 23rd October 2013.