Researchers at Brown University have conducted a study that aimed to find out more about what young women think about the contribution of alcohol use to sexual risk taking. Led by Dr. Kate B. Carey, a professor of behavioral and social sciences at the Brown School of Public Health, they recruited women into focus groups to find out what they thought. They found that women clearly identified several ways in which drinking was associated with risky sexual behaviors such as not using condoms.
Twenty-five young women between the ages of 18 and 29 were recruited into focus groups that were conducted at reproductive health care clinic located in the Northeastern United States. These women met the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) definition of “at-risk” drinking in the last 3 months and also engaged in sexual risk behaviors in the last 3 months (i.e: inconsistent condom use, sleeping with someone who has had multiple partners, etc). Each woman participated in one of six focus groups, which each had 3-7 participants. The focus group was divided into five segments that covered (a) sexual partners and relationships, (b) sexual behaviors, (c) relationships and sexual risk, (d) alcohol and sexual risk-taking, and (e) intervention design and development. Participants were asked questions about how they use alcohol, how much they typically drink, the relationship between alcohol and sex for them, how many times they had sex under the influence and how many times they had sex while not drinking.
Participants reported that alcohol lowered barriers for social engagement and that it made them more outgoing. Some women reported that not only did alcohol make social interaction easier; it also made them more flexible and more willing to engage in sexual activities; including some risky behaviors such as not using a condom. Participants also reported that alcohol impaired their judgement, leading to decisions they might not otherwise make; such as considering sleeping with a partner they might not otherwise consider. Others reported that while under the influence, they tended to not overthink things and make decisions fairly quickly. While participants acknowledged the risk of drinking and engaging in risky sexual behaviors, they reported that this concern was outweighed by the benefits of having sex. This study demonstrates the need to further develop interventions that target risky sexual practices and take alcohol use into account.