Two defining elements of college life are sex
and alcohol, mixing the two, as everyone knows, is very dangerous. According
to a study in the July, 2002 Journal of Studies on Alcohol (Maisto, Carey et al),
just an environment in which the two are mixed can be dangerous. The study examined
sexual scenarios involving alcohol to identify what factors lead to risky sexual behavior.
The two factors investigated were actual intoxication level and the individual’s sexual expectations in an environment
where alcohol is present. As one might expect, actual intoxication did affect
the decision making process. However, what the subjects perceived was expected
from a sexual situation when the participants are intoxicated (researchers labeled this variable: “sexual expectations”)
also had a strong effect. In other words, intoxication and unsafe sexual expectations
are equally dangerous and can lead to risky sexual behavior.
The war against Sexually Transmitted Diseases
(STDs) provide the reasoning for the study performed at Syracuse University, in an attempt to identify what factors lead to
unsafe sex. The expansion of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and other STDs has occurred most rapidly among young adults
and college students (Maisto, Carey et al, 2002). While HIV transmission
has dropped in homosexual males and intravenous drug users in the past decade, one of the hardest hit demographics has been
heterosexual young women. This experiment was specifically designed to target
young women to hold gender and age variables constant. HIV prevention research
is predominantly concerned with the transmission of the virus, thus the experiment focuses on condom usage, one common preventive
measure against STDs.
Scientists investigated their claim that the
more intoxicated the subjects became the more likely they would be to agree to sex without a condom. The study involved 102 women between the ages of 21-30 who the researchers determined to be sexually active
and moderate to heavy drinkers. The participants were first asked to complete
a survey that approximated the likelihood of the woman engaging in risky sexual behavior and assessed the woman’s sexual
expectations. Then the women were divided into three groups. One was given alcoholic beverages to establish a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .08, the legal driving
limit (about 2 drinks). The second group was given tonic and flat tonic poured
from a vodka bottle (to simulate a mixed drink) with limes soaked in vodka and vodka rubbed on the rim, to lead the participants
to believe they were consuming alcohol but in actuality were provided only a very limited amount. A final group was given water to compare results with the other groups.
After that they interacted in seven role plays of sexual scenarios, two involving condom-less sex. The participants then rated each session, including whether they believed they would have sex in the presented
situation. The results were compared to the survey to assess the effect of the
alcohol on the decision making process.
The women in the alcohol consuming group rated
the “likelihood of having sex with the male actor without a condom” dramatically higher than the women in either
the tonic or water drinking groups. However, there was a similar distinction
in the alcohol and tonic groups for the women determined to have unsafe sexual expectations.
This distinction was not present in the water group, implying that since the women perceived they were intoxicated,
their sexual expectations came into play. Thus the study shows the obvious variable,
intoxication, as well as the more vague concept of sexual expectations as the two factors leading to risky sexual behavior.
The researchers were surprised that alcohol did
not have a much more significant impact than an individual’s sexual expectations in an environment where alcohol is
present, but they hypothesized that this was due to the low amount of alcohol used in the experiment. Though a BAC of .08 is the legal driving limit, regular party-goers
and bar/club hoppers could easily consume much higher amounts. Though more evidence
is needed to determine the effects of higher amounts of alcohol on decision making regarding sex, the discovery that sexual
expectations have as much of an impact as low amounts of alcohol is significant.
Any rational college student knows that becoming
sexually involved while intoxicated is not safe. What many may not know is that
it is not just the alcohol but also our perceptions of alcohol that lead to this dangerous situation. With the prevalence of HIV and STDs on college campuses, and their transmission rates only climbing, students
must not just be careful with the amount of alcohol they drink but also with what they believe about alcohol and the environment
they are in. From one angle it seems frightening that we must now monitor our
thoughts to keep us safe. The other side, though, is that all we have to do to
slow the expansion of HIV is to think differently.
Reference:Maisto, S.A., Carey, M.P., Carey, K.B., and Gordon, C.M. 2002. “The effects of alcohol and expanctancies on risk
perception and behavior skills relevant to safer sex among heterosexual young adult women.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol.
Iss. 63 pg. 476