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The Surprising Reason Some Women Have Unsafe Sex

March 19, 2019

No matter how informed you are about the importance of safe sex, perhaps there's been a time when you've agreed to unsafe sex in the moment. According to a new study published in the Journal of Sex Research, women in particular are more likely to accept the risks of unsafe sex (in this case, sex without the use of a condom) in at least one specific scenario: when their partner is someone they think there's more "relationship potential" with long term.

Despite being aware of the risk for sexually transmitted infections, HIV, cervical cancer, and unplanned pregnancy, many people still engage in unprotected sex. In one 2017 survey, 65 percent of people admitted to having had unprotected sex—and 29 percent said they had unprotected sex every single time they engaged in intercourse.

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For the present study, researchers wanted to study how different types of people make decisions about using condoms during a sexual encounter, so they gathered a group of 177 straight women, 157 straight men, and 106 gay men, all of whom were between 18 and 25 years old, have had penetrative sex before, and weren’t currently involved in a long-term monogamous relationship. Each of these participants was presented with a vignette detailing a hypothetical encounter with a new sexual or romantic partner that eventually led to needing to negotiate condom use. The participants were asked about what they'd do in the scenario, their attitudes toward the encounter, how familiar the person seemed to them, and their interest in being in a relationship with this person.

The findings showed straight women were more willing to participate in unsafe sex when the potential for a long-term relationship was on the table. According to the researchers, this romantic possibility and feelings of familiarity with a partner made it more difficult for the women to internalize risk during a sexual encounter.

Why would wanting a long-term relationship with your partner make you less likely to push for condom use? Part of it might be that when you feel a certain level of comfort and trust with someone, you might be less anxious about the prospect of a potential pregnancy and more sure that your partner wouldn't willingly put your health in jeopardy if they did have an STI.

It might also be the opposite—when you want to get closer someone, you might be more willing to go along with what they want, which in this case is condomless sex. Indeed, of all the participants, the women had the lowest expectations that their partner would want to use a condom, so the researchers theorized this perception could have played into their willingness to participate in risky intercourse as well. "This highlights how challenging heterosexual women expect the negotiation of condom use to be," Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling, a researcher with the University of Guelph in Canada who led the study, said in a news release.

There were also some intriguing results for the guys within the study. All three groups expressed preference for different negotiation strategies when it came to trying to get their partner to agree to using a condom. Straight guys gravitated toward more passive strategies and were the most likely to agree to condomless sex, whereas gay men were more verbal about wanting to use condoms, though not confrontational. Meanwhile, the straight women were more assertive during the negotiating process and were more likely to withhold sex if their partner refused to use condoms.

The authors hope these findings can help inform the creation of more effective sexual health education. For example, education might focus on helping people develop better communication skills from a young age, with an equal emphasis on emotional and personal boundaries as there is on health-related sexual risks. It's important to encourage people not to compromise on their physical health in pursuit of love and prevent them from falling into the trap of thinking meaningful connection only comes when you relinquish your personal boundaries.

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