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Teen Health 411

Why Do College Students Have Unprotected Sex?

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Ever wondered why it is that young adults between the ages of 18 and 25, including college students, engage in high levels of unprotected sexual activity despite relatively high rates of HIV/STI and pregnancy-related knowledge?

A recent article in the Archives of Sexual Behavior (April, 2009) offered these explanations:
  1. These participants primarily thought of condoms as a way to prevent pregnancy;
  2. Young adults in comitted relationships are less likely to use condoms (19%) than those who are not committed (62%);
  3. The closer and more intimate they felt toward a sexual partner, the less risk of pregnancy or disease they perceived;
  4. Previous non-use of condoms had not resulted in an STI or pregnancy, so their risk must be low;
  5. Belief in a method they think increases their luck - like pulling out before ejaculation, only not using condoms the week after their period, etc;
  6. Focus on negative short-term consequences of condoms - someone finding the condoms and knowing they were sexually active, less pleasure, etc.; and
  7. Ignoring or dismissing the risk.
The methods the researchers used to collect their data included asking 63 young adults to complete daily diaries over a 3-week period, providing a total of 1,284 daily reports tracking their condom use and non-use during intercourse. The diary data was followed up with in-depth interviews designed to explore how young adults make decisions to engage in unprotected sexual activity.

The researchers found that 32% of the participants were consistent condom users, 25% were inconsistent, and 42% never used condoms. These results suggest that although about 90% of high school students report getting HIV/STI prevention information in high school - they either 1) are not remembering the information; 2) they do not think they are at risk (motivation); or 3) they are not learning condom use skills that "kick-in" during sexual activity.

For whatever reason, the information they learned in high school is not being translated into their sexual behavior, and is contributing to young adults having the highest rates of STIs of any age group. Unless we do something, 33% of sexually active young adults will continue to get an STI before they are 24 years old!
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About the Author

Dr. Brown is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent health.

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