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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
Study: Some Men May Be Hard-Wired for Unsafe Sex
Marilyn Elias
October 28, 2003
USA Today (10.28.03) - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

A recent Kinsey Institute study of 1,500 gay and heterosexual men suggests a minority - roughly 10-20 percent - are most likely to engage in risky sex. The threat of catching a disease does not seem to cool their desire, as it would for most people, and depression or stress can send them cruising for casual sex. All the men filled out questionnaires on arousal, personality and sexual experience, said John Bancroft, institute director and study author.

"For most of us, the way our bodies are set up probably makes it easier to do the right thing," Bancroft said. Past studies show 40-45 percent have less sexual appetite when depressed or stressed, with the remainder showing no change. But a minority feel more aroused. In Bancroft's study, these men did more cruising for casual sex partners, many of whom they did not know well.

Sex that could lead to an STD or unwanted pregnancy causes many men to lose erections, said Bancroft. Men unconcerned with these situations were more likely to practice unsafe sex, including anal intercourse or not using condoms. "They get excited despite the threat," said Bancroft. Indeed, men who scored high in adventurous "sensation-seeking" were most into risky sex.

Public health campaigns stressing "safe sex" could backfire with this minority, said Frank Farley, a Temple University psychologist who pioneered study of the "Type T" or risk- taking personality. "They don't want 'safe.' That takes the thrill out of it." Such risk-takers should instead seek adventure elsewhere, such as bungee-jumping or mountain- climbing, Farley said.

Men who respond to depression with casual sex may be trying to get a desired rush of endorphins in order to change their brain chemistry, said Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality program at the University of Minnesota. Genetic vulnerability and childhood sexual abuse can lead to risky adult sex. "We know that this trauma can alter the chemistry of the brain," Coleman said.

HIV prevention workers and public health campaigns would be far more effective if they emphasized how mental health affects sexual risk-taking, Coleman said. "Nobody is predestined for dangerous sex. But telling them, 'Just use a condom' isn't enough to stop the behavior," he said.

The report on 589 gay men, "Sexual Risk-Taking in Gay Men: The Relevance of Sexual Arousability, Mood, and Sensation Seeking," is published in the December issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior (2003;32(6):555-572). The findings on straight men will be published in 2004, said Bancroft, who added that the results are similar. The Kinsey Institute recently started a similar study with women and men.