Instability Linked to College Students' Risky Sex

Although college is a time of transition and instability, a new study finds that the more instability a college student has in his or her life, the more likely they are to take sexual risks.

University of Illinois researchers believe the instability causes stress which in turn, can lead to risky behavior.

“Young adults experience a lot of instability caused by frequent transitions in their lives,” said Jill Bowers, a University of Illinois researcher in human development and family studies. “They have probably moved out of their parents’ home (and some move back in). They experience changes in residences, roommates, friends, romantic partners, college majors, and employment.

“They may drop out of college, re-enroll, or transfer to another university. And some experience more transitional instability than others.”

According to Bowers, young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have increased freedom from parents, are experimenting as a result of their new freedom, and are exploring their romantic identities.

Stress may cause emerging adults to exhaust the physical and emotional resources that buffer them from risky behaviors. This may result in irrational thought patterns and lead to risky sexual behavior.

In the study, risky sex was defined as: (1) sex with uncommitted partners; (2) unplanned or casual sex with friends or strangers, without communicating about it first; and (3) impulsive sexual behavior.

The researchers surveyed 398 emerging adults at two U.S. universities, one in the Midwest and one in the Southwest. There were 290 female and 100 male participants (eight didn’t indicate their sex), all under the legal drinking age of 21.

The survey asked questions that elicited the frequency of risky sexual behaviors and assessed participants’ psychological well-being and motivations for drinking.

Psychological distress, such as depression and loneliness, and dysfunctional drinking motivations, including drinking to gain peer acceptance or to ease emotional pain, amplified the association between instability and sexual risk-taking.

Although investigators examined family communication patterns, a correlation to young adults’ propensity to engage in sexual risk-taking did not exist.

Bowers said that many colleges mandate completion of an online alcohol prevention program before students arrive on campus as freshmen, but she thinks their message misses the mark.

“I’d like to see these programs aim more toward teaching young adults how to manage stress and loneliness, achieve work-life balance, cope with relationship changes, and increase their self-esteem, instead of leaning so heavily on the message ‘Don’t drink,'” she said.

Because all participants in the study were under 21 years old, there were possible legal consequences for under-age drinkers, she said.

“Yet the study showed that it wasn’t the fact that young adults drank, rather it was their dysfunctional reasons for drinking that enhanced the relationship between the instability they were experiencing and their sexual risk-taking,” she said.

Source: University of Illinois