Why some young adults may be more likely to engage in unsafe sex

Are We Blinded by Desire?


Intimacy in a relationship is a feeling of being close and emotionally connected. It means being able to share a whole range of thoughts, feelings, and experiences that we have as human beings. It involves being open and talking through your thoughts and emotions, letting your guard down, and showing someone else how you feel and what your hopes and dreams are.

Discovering intimacy with someone you love can be one of the most rewarding aspects of a relationship. But a new study suggests that intimacy form lasting romantic relationships appear to influence sexual risk-taking among young adults.

The study is the first to compare how heterosexual men, heterosexual women, and men who have sex with men (MSM) differ in their approach to condom decision-making with a new sexual partner. Scientists expecting that the study explains why some young people engage in unsafe sex even though they are aware of the risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, cervical cancer, and unplanned pregnancy.

Scientists conducted the study on a total of 440 participants aged between 18 to 25 years, recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system (a crowdsourcing marketplace) and a university in Canada. Among all, 157 participants were heterosexual men, 177 participants were heterosexual women and 106 participants were MSM. Scientists studied how participants make decisions about using condoms.

During the study, Participants were presented with a vignette describing an encounter with a hypothetical new sexual or romantic partner and were asked to rate their attitudes and likelihood of choosing particular courses of action, as well as their relationship motivation.

Scientists found that all three groups had a preference for different condom negotiation strategies:

  • Heterosexual men tended to choose more passive strategies
  • Heterosexual women tended to choose more assertive strategies
  • MSM tended to aim for a balance, choosing more verbal strategies than heterosexual men, but selecting strategies that were not confrontational.

This discovery could explain the motives and reasoning that influence risky behaviors. For example, the study suggests that heterosexual women may be more willing to take risks when they both have stronger relationship motivation and view their partner as having more relationship potential.

Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling from the University of Guelph, Canada who led the research said, “Understanding what factors make it more difficult to recognize risk during a sexual encounter, such as the desire for a long-term romantic relationship and partner familiarity, can lead to better prevention.”

“It is particularly striking that women had lower expectations that their partner would be interested in condom use—this highlights how challenging heterosexual women expect the negotiation of condom use to be.”

The authors conclude that the findings have important implications for policy and prevention and should inform the creation of more effective sexual health education programs and interventions.

This is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect and the authors point to several limitations including that it did not involve women who have sex with women, or any other gender/sexuality minority groups, which could limit the generalisability of the findings. They also note that a hypothetical scenario may not invoke the same emotional response or reflect real-life behavior.

The research is published in the Journal of Sex Research.

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