30 April 2003

Factors affecting safer sex choices

Choosing to have safer sex is a decision many people have to make. What are the factors influencing this important choice?


Choosing to have safer sex is a decision many people have to make. What are the factors influencing this important choice?

Whether someone actually knows the importance of taking precautions, obviously influences their decision-making regarding safer sex. Even if people do know, there is nevertheless often a gap between what people know and what they do.

Every minute of every day we make conscious decisions regarding our lives. If we have knowledge of something that is potentially dangerous to us and nevertheless choose to avoid thinking about the consequences should we go ahead anyway, we are practising avoidant behaviour. Avoidance is a choice in itself.

There are factors that influence decision-making. These fall mainly into three categories, namely:
  1. Interpersonal factors,
  2. Intrapersonal factors and
  3. Environmental factors.

1. Interpersonal factors
Decisions influenced by interpersonal factors would include things such as peer pressure, general societal perceptions on the use of condoms and the type of power structure that exists in a sexual relationship.

In some groups of adolescents, the pressure to have sex can be quite strong. Often the emphasis is on having sex rather than on having safer sex. Avoidance of making decisions is often most apparent in this group, as many adolescents who become sexually active, do so on the spur of the moment, rather than making a well-considered choice, weighing up their options. Norms in society can be a strong force exerting pressure on individuals.

The power structure in a relationship also plays an important part. If a couple is not used to joint decision-making, this will also be the pattern in their choices of sexual practice. In other words, the person who is in charge, will be the one making the decision regarding the use of condoms during intercourse. In more traditional societies, this often places women at a disadvantage, as they are often not consulted on this issue.

2. Intrapersonal factors
Intrapersonal factors would be those internal factors that influence a person's decision-making. Examples of these would be religious convictions, traditional perceptions, self-image, someone's upbringing and their personal perceptions on the use of condoms, and their needs and desires that could have an effect on their decision-making.

Traditional or religious beliefs tend to weigh very strongly when people have to make personal decisions. How they feel about themselves, their standing in society and their sense of self are also important contributory factors.

But even if someone has all the information regarding what constitutes risky sex, it is no guarantee that they will always practise safer sex. There is often a huge discrepancy between what people say and what they do.

3. Environmental factors
These are factors that are present in a given situation that will influence decision-making regarding the practicing of safer sex. Substance abuse, abuse of alcohol, the availability of condoms and where someone is at that given moment are all examples of environmental factors that could influence decision-making.

When under the influence of alcohol or drugs, people often do things they wouldn't dream of when sober. But there is definitely a growing awareness amongst sexually active people regarding the importance of safer sex, according to lleading SA psychologists.


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Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria in 2005. She is a patients' rights activist and loves using social media to teach about HIV. She is in private practice in Johannesburg.

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