The organisation Student Beans conducted the Students and Sex 2012 survey, which 5,311 students responded to. Only 11% said they had never had sex before.
Of all those who had, nearly half (42%) said they'd had one-night stands, while two-thirds (66%) admitted to having had unprotected sex, putting them at risk of picking up a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
As well as unpleasant symptoms, STIs have consequences. Even those without obvious symptoms may cause infertility and other long-term health damage.
Whether you're single or in a new relationship, the message is clear: if you're sexually active, the best way to reduce the likelihood of getting an STI is to always use a condom.
Agreeing to have sex
It's very important that people having sex or participating in a sexual activity have each agreed to it of their own free will.
If someone forces you to have sex against your will and without your consent, this is sexual assault, which is a crime. There can sometimes be confusion around whether someone has consented to having sex or not, but there shouldn't be.
The law says consenting to sex can only happen if you are free and able to make a choice about having sex. This means there are lots of situations where it might not be possible for someone to give consent, including being very drunk, under the influence of drugs, or asleep.
It's also possible to consent to one type of sexual activity but choose not to give consent to another. Legally, consent can also be withdrawn at any time during a sexual activity and each time activity occurs.
Read a leaflet about consent (PDF, 351kb) produced by the Crown Prosecution Service.
Find out about the help available if you've been sexually assaulted or raped.
Could you have chlamydia?
Chlamydia is the most common STI among young people – genital warts is the second most common. It often has no symptoms and, if left untreated, can lead to infertility for both men and women.
You can only be sure you don't have chlamydia by taking a test. Male and female students under the age of 25 can get tested for chlamydia free on the NHS at various places, including:
- your GP
- a community contraceptive clinic (family planning clinic)
- a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic
- some pharmacies
If the test is positive, chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics, which are free from the places listed above.
There is also an oral antibiotic to treat chlamydia available from pharmacies without a prescription.
The azithromycin pill (Clamelle) is available to over-16s who test positive for the infection and have no symptoms, and for their sexual partners. You will have to pay for this treatment.
Find out more about the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, or call the helpline on 0300 123 7123.
Other common STIs
Other common STIs among students include genital warts, genital herpes and gonorrhoea. HIV infection is less common, but does happen in young people.
In 2012, young people aged 15 to 24 made up 3% of the total number of people receiving specialist care in the UK. That's more than 2,000 people of student age receiving treatment for HIV.
Most of these infections can be prevented by using condoms. Choose ones that carry the British Kitemark or European CE mark, which are recognised quality standards.
"Some people think that if they test negative for chlamydia, they're OK," says Dr Alyson Elliman, spokesperson for the faculty of sexual and reproductive healthcare at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
"But be aware that other STIs, such as gonorrhoea, can be symptomless too," Dr Elliman says. "Ideally, you should combine safe sex with regular sexual health check-ups, especially in the early stages of a new relationship."
Get tested for STIs
In the Students and Sex 2012 survey, 35% of respondents said they'd never been tested for an STI, but added they would if they thought there was a problem.
Getting tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is straightforward and confidential. You can go to a sexual health clinic regardless of whether or not you have STI symptoms. You can make an appointment to go there, or sometimes there's a drop-in clinic, which means you can just turn up.
You might feel embarrassed, but there's no need – the staff at these clinics are used to testing for all kinds of infections. It's their job and they won't judge you. They should do their best to explain everything to you and make you feel at ease.
Find sexual health services near you, including sexual health and GUM clinics.
Contraception and contraceptive advice is free for students in the UK. With 15 methods of contraception to choose from, there should be one that's right for you. If you choose one that fits with your lifestyle, you'll be more likely to use it properly and it will be more effective.
Long-acting reversible contraceptives, such as contraceptive injections, the implant (also called Implanon), IUD (intrauterine device, sometimes known as a "coil") and Mirena IUS (intrauterine system, or hormone-releasing coil) could be a good choice for female students, according to Dr Elliman.
"They're the most effective types of contraception, and they work for months or years at a time without you needing to remember to take a pill every day," she says.
If you use a continuous method of contraception for birth control, combine it with using a condom to prevent STIs with new partners. You can get contraception for free from:
- any GP – or a pharmacy if you have a prescription from your GP
- community contraceptive clinics
- some GUM clinics
- sexual health clinics – these offer contraceptive and STI testing services
- Brook advisory centres for under-25s
This is contraception you can use to reduce the possibility of pregnancy when you've had unprotected sex, or when you think your usual method might not have worked.
There are two types of emergency contraception, which are:
- the emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning after pill)
- the emergency IUD
Morning after pill
There are two kinds of emergency contraceptive pill: Levonelle, which has to be taken within 72 hours (three days) of sex, and ellaOne, which has to be taken within 120 hours (five days) of sex. Both pills work by preventing or delaying ovulation (the release of an egg).
You can get the emergency pill free from the sources of free contraception listed above. In addition, some accident and emergency (A&E) units provide the emergency contraception pill for free.
Women can buy Levonelle from most pharmacies. It costs around £26. You will usually need a prescription for ellaOne.
Inserting IUD after sex
The IUD may prevent an egg being fertilised or implanted in your uterus. It needs to be inserted by a specially trained doctor or nurse within five days of sex, but could be inserted later depending on your menstrual cycle. If you think you've left it too late, it's still worth discussing the options with a doctor or nurse.
Most community contraceptive clinics and GP surgeries will have at least one doctor or nurse who is able to fit an emergency IUD. It's a good idea to telephone first to check. You can also use the IUD as an ongoing contraceptive method.
Emergency contraception does not protect against STIs.
Find out more on our emergency contraception page.
It's common to feel shock and panic when facing an unplanned pregnancy, but be reassured that professionals are on hand to give information and support.
The three choices are: keep the baby, have an abortion, or have the baby and have it adopted or fostered.
It can be a difficult and complicated decision, and it may help to talk to someone. You can get impartial advice from your GP, a community contraception clinic, Brook advisory centre, or another young person's service.
To get an abortion free on the NHS, you will need to be referred by a doctor. This can be your own GP or a doctor at a local community contraception clinic, sexual health clinic or Brook advisory centre.
Read more about abortion.
Apps about sex
The NHS apps library has a range of sexual health and sex education apps to download for free.