January 4, 2002
The goal of this research was to determine if either group engages in higher risk sexual behavior and to provide information to sexual health educators on appropriate priorities for educational programs tailored to particular groups of students.
Data were gathered as part of the 1997 College Alcohol Study, which surveyed a random sample of students at 116 American colleges and universities. A 20-page questionnaire was mailed to each participant, letting the participants know that response was voluntary and anonymous. Participation was encouraged by a cash incentive.
Four items regarding sexual behavior were included in the College Alcohol Study and in these analyses: "Have you ever had sexual intercourse (with an opposite or same-sex partner)?" "If you have ever been sexually active, has it been with: (a) an opposite-sex partner(s), (b) a same-sex partner(s), or (c) both opposite- and same-sex partners?" "How many people have you had sexual intercourse with in the past 30 days?" and "When you have sexual intercourse, how often do you or your partner use a condom?"
Participants attended 116 American universities and colleges within 39 states; 22%, Northeastern; 29%, Southern; 29%, North Central; and 19%, Western.
This analysis identified differences in sexual health practices between college students with same-sex partners and college students with opposite-sex partners. In particular, female students reporting both-sex partners and male students with both-sex and same-sex partners were more likely to report multiple sexual partners than those students who only had opposite-sex partners.
Overall, rates of consistent condom use found in this sample were somewhat higher than those found previously in large studies of United States college students. The difference could be due to a genuine increase in the rates of condom use during the few years between this and prior studies, or it could also be due in part to the exclusion of married students from this analysis. Men with exclusively same-sex partners were less likely to report consistent condom use. While this difference was not statistically significant, the authors suggest that it may reflect changed perceived threat of HIV and AIDS within the gay male community, or it may reflect a shortcoming in safer-sex promotion for gay college students.
In addition, among men in this study, those with more partners tended to report less consistent condom use -- a combination that puts them and their partners at substantial risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
The authors recommend several strategies to improve sexual risk behaviors among college students. First, messages about the importance of condom use, condom promotion, and condom distribution may need to be renewed for all students, in particular for males with same-sex partners. Second, sexual health education programs need to emphasize the importance of minimizing ones number of sexual partners as a risk-prevention strategy. A focus on lifetime partner minimization is also critical given the fact that most college students are not reliable condom users.
They conclude by suggesting that because much of the HIV/AIDS prevention intervention work now specifically targets audiences defined by behaviors (e.g., "men who have sex with men"), research based on experiences rather than self-identification as gay, lesbian, or bisexual is particularly important.
For more information: M. Eisenberg, "Differences in Sexual Risk Behaviors Between College Students With Same-Sex and Opposite-Sex Experience: Results from a National Survey," Archives of Sexual Behavior, December, 2001, vol.30, no. 6, pp. 575-89.