23 August 2006

Are teens condomising?

A new study has shown that teen attitudes toward condom use vary by partner type, and could be having an affect on HIV prevention.

One of the main outcomes from the world AIDS conference in Toronto this month was the push for better HIV intervention methods.

This week, a new study from researchers at the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center and Brown Medical School, found that teen attitudes toward condom use with whom they perceive as casual sexual partners versus main partners is crucial in developing effective HIV intervention programs.

Researchers discovered that whether or not they were with a 'main' or 'casual' sexual partner, study participants had similar numbers of unprotected sex acts, despite the fact that they were more likely to use condoms with a casual partner than with someone with whom they considered a serious partner.

"Unfortunately, this reveals that teens may overestimate the safety of using condoms most of the time with a casual partner and underestimate the risk of unprotected sex with a serious partner," says lead author Celia Lescano, PhD, with the Bradley Hasbro Children's Research Center and Brown Medical School.

This study appears in the September issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study

Over 1 300 sexually active adolescents (between 15 and 21 years of age), from Miami, Atlanta and Providence, were recruited for this study. Researchers divided them into two groups: the 65% who reported sexual activity with main partners only in the past ninety days, and the 35% who had at least one casual partner.

Interestingly, the number of unprotected sex acts in the past ninety days was substantial and equivalent between the main and casual partner groups (19.2% versus 21.5%, respectively).

"We can conclude that, given these high rates of unprotected sex, teens in both groups may be at risk for contracting HIV and sexually-transmitted diseases," says Lescano.

Prior studies have shown that adolescents use condoms significantly more often with casual partners (anyone you have sex with, but do not consider to be a main partner) than with main partners (someone you are serious about).

Condom use reflects attitudes
Condom use, a primary method of sexual safety, has been associated with a variety of individual characteristics and attitudes, such as self-efficacy, personal beliefs, and perception of peer norms.

There are also other motivations and attitudes that may shape condom use. For example, how adolescents define their partners (i.e. 'main' versus 'casual') may play a crucial role in determining their use of condoms, the authors’ state.

For instance, 10% of those teens reporting having relationships with casual partners also reported living with a main partner. In addition, the authors found that teens whose main partners had negative reactions about condom use (they are uncomfortable etc.) were less likely to use condoms.

Males more promiscuous
Adolescents in the 'main partner' group were more likely to be female while males were significantly more likely to report 'casual partners'. In addition, greater substance use and riskier attitudes were reported by teens in the 'casual partner' group.

The authors also noted that HIV intervention programs that do not target adolescents' attitudes and practices related to casual sexual partners as compared to main partners may miss an opportunity to change their risk behaviours.

"This study demonstrates the importance of understanding an adolescent's perception of partner types in order to design effective interventions," Lescano said. –(EurekAlert! August 2006)

Read more:
Teens struggle with condoms
HIV: 1 in 3 doesn’t use condoms


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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